They are also clear that the social isolation of the past year has been damaging to kids. The sooner children can be back in school and socializing without restriction or concern, the better. This won’t happen as long as the virus is spreading in communities. “I think it’s been well shown that opening schools in person can be done safely,” Spearman said. “Yes, there will be some spread among kids. And that will contribute to ongoing spread in the community, to anyone who has not yet been vaccinated. So there’s an advantage to society when kids are vaccinated.”
This message of interconnectedness tends to get lost in discussions of vaccines’ effectiveness. Headlines about whether a vaccine is, say, 75 or 90 percent effective at preventing symptomatic illness don’t reflect the broader context. A person’s risk of being infected, whether or not they’ve gotten a vaccine, will be contingent on how many other people have been vaccinated, and how widely the virus is circulating. Each vaccinated person helps lower the risk to everyone else.
It will be many months before kids can be vaccinated in large numbers, so for people who would like schools to resume normal operations, as soon as possible, the most important step is to get vaccinated themselves, and make sure their family and friends do the same. That’s true not just for those who work in school systems or have young children. It’s true for everyone.
“Herd-immunity protection is about protecting others,” Dane Snyder, the chief of primary-care pediatrics at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, told me. “There will be some people whose immune systems don’t mount a response after vaccination. There are people who can’t get vaccinated, because of age, like infants,” he said. “It may be a personal decision, but it’s a collective effect.”
The matter is made more urgent by adults who forgo vaccination because they don’t understand—or don’t care—that their decision puts others, including children, in harm’s way. The disease that has killed millions of people around the world, and continues to kill almost 1,000 Americans each day, could hypothetically be nearly eradicated if every adult underwent vaccination. But as of now, in some areas, many people remain unwilling. Nationally, about 20 percent of adults say they either will not get vaccinated or will do so only if required. “The hope is the more adults that get vaccinated, the fewer people the virus has to bounce around in,” Snyder said. “But we just don’t know if that’s going to happen yet.” The better the adults do at vaccinating ourselves, the more stress we can alleviate for families and kids who don’t have the same luxury.
The Atlantic’s COVID-19 coverage is supported by a grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.