I’ll say this for the pre-vaccine days: it was far easier to think about risk when the only sensible option—for those lucky enough for it to even be an option—was to hunker down, avoid as much contact with other people as possible, and wait out the storm.
But a year of self-imposed isolation, fueled partially by fear and partially by a moral imperative to not infect others, has a way of scrambling your brain in a way that makes it hard to figure out what’s “safe” now that we’ve entered this strange, half-vaccinated liminal phase. After getting my shots this past spring, it took me weeks to feel anything resembling normal while spending time with family and friends indoors again. Now, with the Delta variant fueling a potential fourth wave while only half the country is vaccinated and many people are acting as if the pandemic is over, it’s harder than ever to gauge the risk to myself and, more importantly, my nearly two-year-old son.
It would help if you and I could think this through together. I, a 32-year-old vaccinated man with no relevant pre-existing conditions, am very safe from developing severe COVID-19. Yes, breakthrough cases happen—they were always going to happen; the vaccines were judged on their ability to prevent serious disease, not infection—but they are rare, and serious cases among the inoculated are rarer still. The result: this has become, as U.S. President Joe Biden recently put it, a “pandemic of the unvaccinated;” nearly all the latest deaths are among those who didn’t get their shots.
The logical side of my brain knows all this, but the anxiety-driven corners of it also know that breakthrough cases still happen, and there’s a non-zero chance I could be one of those cases, and wind up very sick, or die, or end up with inexplicable Long COVID symptoms that plague me for months, years, or the rest of my life, making it harder to be the father I want to be. My answer to all this is to keep avoiding large indoor crowds, to steer clear of anyone I know to be unvaccinated, and to start wearing my mask at the grocery store again, CDC guidance otherwise be damned. I’ve gotten used to the hermit life—a little too used to it, probably—and another few months of laying low won’t kill me.
Judging the risk to my son, unfortunately, is far harder. Like all Americans under 12, he remains unvaccinated, though I would bring him in for the shot in a heartbeat given the chance. Children mostly do not get seriously sick from COVID-19; only about 350 have died of the virus in the U.S. so far, per the American Academy of Pediatrics, a vanishingly small case fatality rate of 0.01%. But, again, it does happen, and every headline I see about an eight-, six-, or three-year-old who died from a serious case makes me want to take my son, climb into a doomsday bunker and return only when it’s time for his bar mitzvah. That childhood COVID-19 fatalities are skyrocketing in Indonesia is a particularly harrowing data point, though many children there, and in other low-income parts of the world, are likely at higher risk because, tragically, they suffer from poor access to health care, malnutrition, and other factors that make them more vulnerable to disease in general.
In talking with other parents with kids around my son’s age, it’s become clear that to become a first-time parent in the pandemic is a unique experience, and one that warps how you think about parenting and risk tolerance, possibly forever. My purely anecdotal findings suggest that parents of slightly older kids—kids who became actualized human beings with likes, dislikes and aptitudes well before COVID-19 sent everything sideways—are generally a little more willing to accept the (again, very low) risk the virus poses to their children; they have already learned the inevitable lesson that you can’t protect your kids from everything scary forever. My fellow pandemic first-time parents, meanwhile, are—again, speaking generally—freaked right the hell out.
I suspect that becoming a parent always changes how you think about risk, both regarding yourself and the tiny blob you’ve suddenly been tasked with caring for—regardless of the historical and geographical context. But there is probably something unique about entering parenthood at a moment when “risk tolerance” became the defining question of human existence.
My wife and I have, for now, only slightly recalibrated how we think about the risk our son now faces. Earlier this summer, when cases were low and Delta wasn’t a concern in the U.S., we took him to the zoo; we probably wouldn’t do that now. He’s still in day care, something I wrestle with every day. He clearly loves “school,” as we call it, and he’s bringing home new skills (he recently started, out of nowhere, walking backwards) and words almost every day, marking significant milestones in his physical and mental development. But exposure to COVID-19 in that environment seems inevitable, despite the efforts his day care center is making to keep the kids safe, and it tears me up inside that there’s a potential future in which he gets very sick because mom and dad needed to work in order to feed, clothe, and shelter him—and, ironically enough, pay for daycare.
I have more or less accepted that the draw-dropping transmissibility of the Delta variant means that I, my son and my wife will all probably be exposed at some point or another, no matter the effort we make to avoid it. When and if that happens, I have to trust that the vaccines will protect my wife and I, while my son will fend it off by virtue of his age. I’m not throwing caution totally to the wind—we’re not taking him to crowded indoor spaces like museums, and I’m avoiding such spaces myself. But small visits with vaccinated family members are very much on the table—indeed, I’m currently writing this from my in-laws’ basement; my son is upstairs with Nana and Opa.
Our thinking may change if the situation gets dramatically worse, or if new data suggest a greater risk to kids (hopefully, the CDC’s revised masking guidance will make life safer for unvaccinated children). But this virus has already taken too much from him, and it wouldn’t be fair to once again totally isolate him from his loved ones, no matter how badly I just want to protect him at all costs. We are, after all, doing other ostensibly dangerous stuff with him, like driving, an activity that in 2018 resulted in the deaths of 636 children in the U.S., per the CDC, about double the number known to have died of COVID-19 so far. I just hope that’s the right decision.