What we know — and don’t — about traveling with young unvaccinated children this holiday season

Oct 6, 2021

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Families with unvaccinated children got a bit of good news earlier this year when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized COVID-19 vaccines for children 12 to 15. But some families are still waiting for their younger kids — children under the age of 11 — to get their turn. 

We appear to be getting somewhat closer, as one vaccine maker has said that its shot was safe for young kids. But there’s still a lot that we don’t know, and with the fall and winter holidays approaching — and a new year on the horizon — families are wondering what travel will look like for them in the coming months.

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Which children are eligible to be vaccinated?

(Photo by Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images)

Before you rush to the nearest drugstore to schedule a COVID-19 vaccination for your kids, you may have to hold off for at least a bit longer. 

The CDC recommends all people 12 and older be vaccinated against COVID-19 but is not recommending children under 12 be vaccinated at this point.

Still, according to Reuters, Pfizer recently submitted trial data for children ages 5 to 11 and will ask for emergency use authorization soon. It filed for emergency use for the 12 to 15 age group in April and the vaccine was authorized for that group in May, so it appears the turnaround time is around one month or so. 

But vaccines go through a rigorous process to obtain emergency use authorization. The FDA said that it would not “cut any corners” regarding the authorization of vaccines for very young children, seemingly seeking to assuage nervous parents. The agency also said it was investigating different dosing regimens — young children will likely not receive an adult vaccine dose — for kids.

What to know about traveling with young unvaccinated children

It is still possible to travel with very young unvaccinated children, even to countries that generally require vaccinations. In fact, many countries have already relaxed vaccine rules for children under 12 who are ineligible to get a COVID-19 shot right now, partly to make it easier on families and not to alienate paying customers who want to travel.

Generally, countries with vaccination requirements allow children under 12 to show proof of a negative coronavirus test. Some countries, such as Iceland and Antigua, allow young children to skip pre-travel testing altogether

But what that means is that you’ll likely have to arrange for COVID-19 testing for your young child for some international travel even if you are vaccinated yourself and can skip pre-travel testing. And you’ll want to make sure you can secure COVID-19 testing well in advance, especially as we approach the fall and winter holidays. As I reported in late September, the CDC warned that there was a shortage of COVID-19 rapid tests. Several states like California, Ohio and Pennsylvania have also reported shortages in recent weeks. 

It is possible that COVID-19 vaccines won’t be approved for young children before the holidays begin. In that case, we may see further shortages as families rush to secure coronavirus testing for their kids.

Traveling over the holidays with children

(Photo by Sophia Groves/Getty Images)

Your travel plans and whether your kids can avoid coronavirus testing this fall, winter and next spring may largely depend on when COVID-19 vaccinations are authorized for young children. 

It’s too soon to say whether we’ll see coronavirus vaccines for young kids rolled out before the start of the holiday season, which won’t be that useful for families waiting for a definitive timeline. But we have one indication: the Wall Street Journal reported in late September that clearance for a Pfizer vaccine for younger children may not come until some time between Halloween and Thanksgiving.

This can throw a wrench in holiday travel plans, especially for families hoping they could fully vaccinate their children before heading out to Thanksgiving dinner or even before going trick-or-treating. And now, it appears unlikely that young kids will get fully vaccinated before the fall and winter holiday season begins.

If you’re planning to travel with unvaccinated children, Dr. Jenny Yu, the senior manager of medical integrity at Healthline Media (owned by TPG’s parent company, Red Ventures), says that every family will have to weigh the risks and benefits before hitting the road. What may also happen is that vaccines are authorized during the holiday season, and some young children may only be able to get the first dose before travel. 

“While one dose gives the kids some protection, it may not be enough for the more transmissible delta variant,” Dr. Jenny Yu said through email. 

The coronavirus appeared to largely spare young children during last year’s surge, but more and more children are testing positive for the highly transmissible delta variant of the virus. According to data from the American Academy of Pediatrics, children under 18 were 26.7% of the reported COVID-19 cases for the week beginning Sept. 16 and ending Sept. 23.

With those figures in mind, Dr. Yu says that families should consider several factors before deciding whether they feel safe to travel.

“There are various data points for the families to consider: what are the rates of infection in the area of travel? Can we avoid crowds? Are there risks for transmission to others?” she said.

And parents don’t have just logistical concerns to be concerned about.

They’re worried about their kids contracting COVID-19 while traveling and getting stranded as a result, a potentially pricey gamble. Even if kids don’t develop symptoms themselves, they can still spread the virus to another unvaccinated child. Even more worrisome is the possibility of passing along the virus to someone who is vaccinated but has underlying health conditions, like a grandparent.

However, Dr. Yu also noted some steps families should take even if their younger kids can’t get vaccinated yet. She recommends frequent COVID-19 testing (several nationwide drugstores offer testing for children as young as 3), emphasizing the importance of basic hand hygiene and, of course, wearing a face mask.

If that timeline proves correct, families traveling with young children shouldn’t encounter many issues with travel in early 2022 and heading into spring break. What seems up in the air, at least right now, is the fall and winter holiday travel season. But if you’re planning international travel (or you want peace of mind), a COVID-19 test could be sufficient enough. However, if you’re going to stay closer to home with your younger children, there are no domestic COVID-19 testing requirements.

Featured photo by Bonfanti Diego/Getty Images

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