Vaccinated parents with kids that aren’t: How to navigate 2 sets of travel rules

May 17, 2021

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In the United States, many people — including families — are itching to travel after more than a year of pandemic-related limitations. As vaccination rates rise in the country, many are poised to dive into a summer of travel.

According to a summer travel trends study by TPG and Healthline Media (which is owned by TPG’s parent company, Red Ventures), half of adults in the U.S. (50%) say they’ll likely take at least one summer vacation between June and September this year. That number rises to 54% among adults who are already vaccinated.

And an online poll by American Express, from Jan. 2021, indicates 65 percent of respondents said that they plan to travel when they and their family members have received a vaccine for COVID-19. American Express Travel consultants report that cardmembers are interested in, and asking about, options for family-focused vacations.

But what about those with young children who can’t get vaccinated yet? On May 10, the FDA announced emergency authorization for the use of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for children aged 12 and up. Pfizer has said it expects its vaccine to be authorized for children aged 2 to 11 in September. While this news is promising for those who have been waiting for a return to normalcy, summer travel plans are still up in the air for many.

The question is: Should vaccinated parents travel with unvaccinated children this summer?

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Face-mask restrictions will loosen at Disney World on May 15. (Image courtesy of Charlene Maria/Disney)

Of course, this question has a lot of variables, including people’s method of travel, where they’re going and what they plan to do once they get there. It’s also important to consider whether unvaccinated people have any underlying health conditions that could increase their risk of COVID-19 being a more serious illness if they were to catch it. And while severe illness among children with COVID-19 is rare, it’s not impossible.

“Symptoms are very much like the adults: cold symptoms, fevers, cough, red eyes and COVID toes,” says Dr. Jenny Yu of Healthline Media’s Medical Affairs team. “The percentage of kids who need intense medical care is less than of the adults. However, the concern in children is the development of the Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (MIS-C) that lands the kids in pediatric ICUs.”

Bridget Shirvell, who lives in Mystic, Connecticut, with her 2-year-old, has an autoimmune disease, so it makes her think about the risks differently, even though her daughter doesn’t currently have any underlying conditions. “The part about COVID that worries me the most with a young child is that there isn’t enough data on what the long-term effects of COVID can be,” she says. “I worry about her catching it and having some sort of long-term illness because of it. I’m not sure I would be as worried if it wasn’t for my own experiences having chronic illness, but because of that, I’m probably more careful than others.” For now, she is only planning drivable road trips with her daughter and doesn’t dine indoors.

Of course, there are steps to take to mitigate the risks, says Dr. Yu. “The same hygiene precautions apply for wearing a mask indoors, looking for outdoor activities, and avoiding crowds,” says Dr. Yu.

As you begin to think about summer travel with children, here are a few things to consider.

Are you driving or flying?

(Photo by Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock)

Dr. Yu says that flying poses the greatest risk for those unvaccinated. “If trips are planned, it’s best to think about driving trips, especially if it involves younger kids who are not able to comply with mask-wearing on long flights,” she says.

Liza Maschi is flying to Aruba at the end of June with her two young children. “My biggest fear is my 2-year-old not wearing a mask on the plane and that my 7-month-old will get sick, but I’m mitigating by baby-wearing facing me while we travel,” she says. “We came to terms that COVID is not going away in the next few years. We decided to take calculated risks based on the fact that children seem unaffected, so we feel the risk outweighs the reward of travel and experience for our family.”

Meg St-Esprit McKivigan and her four kids all had COVID-19 last year, and she was hospitalized. And while she still doesn’t feel safe flying, if her kids hadn’t had COVID, they wouldn’t be traveling as much as they are. They currently have six different road trips planned from their home in Pittsburgh around Pennsylvania and Maryland, and they are mostly outdoor focused. “I realize they could get it again; the risk is not zero,” she says. “My pediatrician has been very encouraging about the low rate of reinfection…and while I almost died, they were all pretty mild, so if they do get it again, I don’t have the same anxiety about severe illness as I did before they got it.”

What are the positivity rates in the region you’re visiting?

Italy’s iconic Trevi Fountain. (Photo by hocus-focus/Getty Images)

It’s important to check the CDC’s risk level for your intended destination and to be aware of the destination’s local regulations involving testing and quarantine, says Dr. Lindsay Slowiczek, PharmD, of Healthline Media’s Medical Affairs team. “If your family is fully vaccinated, travel within the country is considered generally safe,” she says.

“Until your family is fully vaccinated, international travel is not recommended,” says Slowiczek. “But if you are traveling internationally, you’ll need to provide proof of a negative test for each person, including children, before you board a plane back to the U.S. You’ll also want to get tested three to five days after you return to the country, to make sure you are not unknowingly carrying the virus back with you.”

She adds that parents should be watchful for any COVID-19 symptoms in themselves and their children.

Of course, many parents are planning international travel, often to see family they haven’t seen in more than a year, like Natasha Vorspel-Rueter, who is flying from Atlanta to Munich and then driving to Austria with her husband and two daughters, ages 5 and 3. “Our kids are in virtual school from home, we continue to wear masks, wash our hands often and social distance,” she says. She adds that her daughters are good at keeping their masks on, which was a factor in her decision to fly with them.

Still, even domestic travel risks vary state-by-state — and even city-by-city. Liz Bolton, who lives in Ketchikan, Alaska, has been planning to travel with her two unvaccinated kids to Fairbanks to see family at the end of June. But recent rising rates in both Ketchikan and Fairbanks are causing her to reconsider.

“We’d be taking three flights each way and incorporating a hotel stay each way too, so it feels like a lot of possible opportunities for the kids to come into contact with sick people,” says Bolton. “When we bought the tickets a month ago, we did feel like it wasn’t going to be particularly risky, but with Alaskan rates skyrocketing and with the state encouraging tourists to come from elsewhere, it no longer feels worth it.”

Will you eat inside a restaurant, go to a museum or other indoor attractions?

Pier I Cafe in New York City. (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

When determining what you’ll do on your trip, take into account how many people — particularly other unvaccinated people — you’ll interact with, and note that you may not know many other people’s vaccination status. Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently advised that vaccinated people can safely remove their masks while inside, dining indoors without masks for those unvaccinated is still considered one of the riskiest behaviors. Many parents still feel uncomfortable doing so with their unvaccinated children.

“Overall, we have avoided doing indoor dining because it is generally a higher risk environment for spreading the virus and it requires that we take off our masks,” says Ellen Krouss, who is planning a trip to Seattle and the San Juan Islands from Baltimore with her husband and 7-year-old daughter this August.

“We’ve grown accustomed to doing a lot of our activities outdoors and really enjoy it, so it’s not a stretch to continue to do it while we travel,” Krouss says. She adds, though, that she’s not hesitant about staying at a hotel and would feel comfortable going to an uncrowded museum where mask-wearing was enforced.

Vorspel-Rueter agrees, saying she wouldn’t dine indoors with her kids and plans to spend most of their time in Austria hiking and at a lake.

Once you’ve decided whether you will travel with your unvaccinated children, it’s time to determine where you’ll go.

Where can families travel right now?

Aside from investigating local infection rates in a destination and understanding their safety protocols, figuring out the logistics of a trip — especially international — can be complicated. You’ll need to determine if adults need vaccination proof, when and what type of COVID-19 tests are required before, upon and after arrival, and before returning home — and if the rules are different for adults versus children.

A lot of countries’ regulations are complex, and some don’t fully address kids.

For example, Hawaii still has a pre-travel testing requirement for anyone over the age of 4 and Rhode Island requires a negative test from unvaccinated domestic travelers arriving from a list of hot spots with a positivity rate greater than 5 percent. Mexico does not require a negative COVID-19 test result, proof of vaccination or quarantine, for people traveling from the U.S.

The Bahamas requires a negative test for any unvaccinated travelers; however children 10 and under are exempt. Bermuda requires a negative test result three days before arrival and another test will be given at the airport upon arrival for anyone over the age of 10. Vaccinated travelers are slightly less restricted in their movements on the island, but all travelers are retested on days 4, 8, and 14 of their stay. However, after June 6, any non-vaccinated traveler over the age of 17 is required to quarantine for 14 days.

The European Commission recently unveiled an official proposal to open all countries this summer to vaccinated travelers from outside the EU. The proposal mentions that unvaccinated children should be allowed to travel with their parents by providing a negative test result, and this is the current requirement in Greece, which has already reopened, but children under the age of 5 are exempt from the test there.

Each country (and sometimes state or city) will have its own requirements, so as you plan for family travel, it’s important to read each destination’s pandemic policies carefully.

Bottom line

Despite all this, many parents feel that traveling with their unvaccinated children is worth the risk.

“I feel much safer now that my husband and I are vaccinated,” says Krouss. “Travel is a big part of our lives and I feel that it is a way for us to get back to some normalcy after a year that has been so challenging. I think it will be an enormous boost to our moods and overall emotional and mental health, which, to me, is a pretty good reason to take the risk.”

Featured image by FamVeld/Shutterstock

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