Hear me out.
Think about a grandmother who’s received, say, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Trial research indicates that the second shot reduces her risk of serious illness by about 95 percent. Her risk of death goes way down too, although the trials were not geared toward reaching a conclusion on that point. (The Pfizer control group recorded zero deaths.)
Different vaccines yield different results, but all of the vaccines approved by the FDA (Pfizer-BioNTech’s, Moderna’s, and Johnson & Johnson’s) are very effective, which is why the CDC has indicated that vaccinated individuals can interact unmasked with other vaccinated individuals. It hasn’t yet commented on flying, but I’m guessing the CDC will relax its flying advisories for vaccinated individuals in the next few weeks. It will continue to recommend masks, for the sake of protecting the unvaccinated population, because the science on transmission by the vaccinated is still hazy.
Now think about your child. The CDC has published some risk assessments by age. For comparison’s sake, I’ll phrase the findings the way I would the results of a vaccine trial: Being a child aged 5 to 17 is 99.9 percent protective against the risk of death and 98 percent protective against hospitalization. For children 0 to 4, these numbers are 99.9 percent (death) and 96 percent (hospitalization).
The central goal of vaccination is preventing serious illness and death. From this standpoint, being a child is a really great vaccine. Your unvaccinated first grader appears to have about as much protection from serious illness as a vaccinated grandmother.
Comparisons are more difficult when it comes to the risk of any infection at all. An Israeli study undergoing peer review found that the Pfizer vaccine reduces infection in asymptomatic cases by about 90 percent, and in symptomatic cases by almost 94 percent. Child case counts haven’t been well documented, in part because asymptomatic infection appears to be so common among kids. However, the available data suggest that children are less likely than adults to contract the coronavirus, but more likely to contract it than a vaccinated grandmother. (Below, I’ll address the latest thinking on variants, and research on the possible long-term effects of less-than-serious infections, which remains murky, and controversial.) This news may feel a little mixed: Yes, kids are protected from serious illness, just like their vaccinated grandparents, but they are not as protected from contracting the virus at all.
Here is where the concept of herd immunity comes in to save the summer. If the Israeli Pfizer study is anywhere near right, then case rates will fall once a large share of adults are vaccinated. They are likely to fall a lot as the virus finds fewer and fewer receptive hosts. Children will gain some protection from infection simply because not as much virus will be in circulation.