In Slate earlier this month, a parent wrote into an advice columnist to ask whether they were being overprotective because they would not allow their fully vaccinated 15-year-old to attend a two-week summer camp because the camp wasn't requiring proof of vaccination or mask-wearing. "And while she would be much less at risk than the kids at camp who are not protected by the vaccine—she’s 95 percent protected, they are 0 percent protected—there is still a risk to her that doesn’t seem worth taking," the advice-seeker wrote, adding that they did not want to give "tacit approval" to the camp's methods by sending their kid there. "Am I being ridiculous?" they wanted to know. "My daughter insists I am."
"You are not being ridiculous," answered advice columnist Michelle Herman. "Teenagers are at greater risk than was previously thought, as this story in the New York Times and this one in the Washington Post make clear. If the camp is not requiring that all attendees be vaccinated—and, good lord, not requiring masks either—then you should not let her go."
This well-meaning advice is, unfortunately, completely wrong—or at least completely detached from the science. The two stories linked there discuss how one-third of teens hospitalised with COVID ended up in the ICU, but only after conceding that teenagers are very rarely hospitalised with COVID. But more to the point, those teens weren't vaccinated, unlike the questioner's kid. Very few fully vaccinated people of any age have been hospitalised anywhere, and the overlap of "fully vaccinated" and "teenager" places the kid in one of the lowest-risk groups in existence. Unless they have an autoimmune disorder or some other highly compounding condition, the risk of children and teenagers getting very sick and dying from this thing are incredibly low, even if they're not vaccinated. We've known this for a long time. Yet you can find liberals all over the place fretting over this—again, coming from a good place and acting on a very natural impulse as parents—as not all kids can yet get vaccinated.
This instinct has gone into turbodrive with the rise of the Delta Variant, a more transmissible and possibly more dangerous adaptation that various media outlets tried to brand The Triple Mutant Strain when it emerged earlier this year. The variant is a huge concern worldwide, including in U.S. states with low vaccination rates, but it is not really a concern for vaccinated people at this point. The vaccines work against the Delta Variant, which is not always a detail you'll get very high up in a story on the Delta Variant. In fact, the vaccines work against every strain we currently know of. There is some concern around breakthrough Delta infections for those who got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, and there are growing calls for J&J jabbers to get a booster of one of the mRNA vaccines. But as infectious disease researcher Ryan MacNamera explained Wednesday, it's also important to examine so-called "breakthroughs" in detail and with some nuance. Just because there's a breakthrough infection doesn't mean you will have any actual presentation of disease. It doesn't mean you can pass the disease to other people very easily. And again, the evidence right now is that it is extremely rare for anyone who is vaccinated to be hospitalised or die.
The priority at this juncture just has to be getting as many people as possible fully vaccinated as soon as possible. Full stop. There is no other way out of the pandemic. Americans are not going back into lockdown. You can chalk this up to centuries of rugged individualism—which some consider simple selfishness—or the decline of societal collectivism in the post-Reagan years. But them's the facts. There's no going back. We are extremely lucky to be where we are as a country, and we should work tirelessly to bring more states—and other countries—up to speed on inoculation. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, not exactly a run-and-gun type, has said quite simply that vaccinated people are safe from the Delta variant and don't need to wear masks. If you want to wear a mask, that's totally fine. I wear one at the grocery store and in other shops to try to put other people at ease, but I do this in the knowledge that it is mostly theatre. If you are fully vaccinated, especially with the Pfizer or Moderna shots, you've got to know that you are not in danger in the frozen foods aisle.
And neither are kids at summer camp. Again, it's up to parents what their kids will be allowed to do this summer, and it's a fraught and emotional decision. But the last line of the Slate questioner's query isn't nothing: "Because she is a dramatic teenager, she says she’ll never forgive me if I don’t let her go." This is a call back of sorts to the beginning of the question: "She’s been so bored, and the school year was so terrible—and it’s an arts camp, which is her thing. She desperately wants to go." Keeping kids away from other kids, especially after the past 15 months, and especially during the summer—a time when you learn at least as much about yourself and the world as during the school year—is not a zero-cost manoeuvre. We may someday look back on the broad decisions to persist with remote schooling very differently.
Trading whatever your child would experience at camp for the opportunity to bring their risk from minuscule to what you consider absolute zero is, in all honesty, a battle between rationality and the lizard brain. Conservative media has been appealing to the amygdala for decades now, but it's liberals who are falling prey on this issue. It doesn't help that the fear and wonder generated by the pandemic has been a boon to the mainstream news media, and not everyone is ready to let go when there are new Variants of Concern to whip up something more than concern about. (In February, the L.A. Times ran a story on the so-called California Variant with the headline, "California's coronavirus strain looks increasingly dangerous: 'The devil is already here.'" Cases in California proceeded to drop precipitously.) But until something changes, and the vaccinated are broadly put at risk by something even more daunting than a Triple Mutant Strain, we've just got to keep vaccinating people and moving forward. Anything else just doesn't reflect the science or, for that matter, reasonable expectations for human beings who already gave up so much of what makes life worth living over the last year and a half. Keep calm and carry on. And, if you can stomach it, let the kid go to camp. They won't hate you forever if you don't, but they probably won't forget it, either.
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