JUNE 16, 2021 — Summer break for an Alaska kid looks much more fun than it did a year ago.
Children spent the past 12 months creating new ways to learn and keep seeing friends. Early in the pandemic, they organized drive-by parties to celebrate a birthday. They kept playing together outside — wearing masks and giving each other some space. They hopped on Zoom meetings to stay connected virtually.
When the pandemic started, families had to consider the terrible tradeoffs, said Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer: If kids chose to play with friends, could they get each other sick, and then unintentionally pass the virus to their mom, dad or grandparent? This summer, many moms, dads and grandparents are protected from Covid-19 with the vaccine. Now, those who remain unvaccinated are mainly younger Alaskans, including kids 11 and younger who likely won’t be eligible for vaccines until fall. Most children do not get very sick from Covid-19, Zink said.
Making the most of this summer is critical, said Zink.
“Supporting our kids to eat well, be physically active and play with other children is critically important to their health and development,” she said.
Zink said there are two ingredients that make activities safer this summer: vaccination plus being outside. When one or both of these isn’t possible — such as young kids not being eligible for vaccines — then families can make adjustments to stay active in the safest ways.
The great news about Alaska’s response is that the statewide numbers of Covid-19 cases are very low. Continue to monitor the Covid-19 trends in your communities. Follow state and local guidance, which may differ one community to the next. Consider extra steps your family may need to take to protect others in the household. Have patience with each other and be kind, Zink said.
While masks are no longer required in many places, you will still see them being worn in public. That mask may make some people feel safer, Zink said. They might have a health reason for wearing it, or they are trying to protect a family member who’s not fully vaccinated or has a compromised immunity.
“If you are not feeling well, if you are unvaccinated or live with someone who has a compromised immunity— masks work,” Zink said.
Zink and Dr. Elizabeth Ohlsen, public health physician with the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, answered questions to help families encourage their young kids to keep playing and see friends this summer.
What play looks like for kids this summer
What does physical activity look like for kids 12 and older who are fully vaccinated?
Zink said this summer looks awesome for older kids. She says all options are open for fully vaccinated children, without wearing masks or needing to keep distance. Full vaccination allows them to play sports and do other activities, indoors or outdoors. They no longer need to quarantine after being exposed to a teammate or friend who has Covid-19, Ohlsen said.
Zink talked about her 16-year-old daughter returning to the activity she loves. Her daughter is fully vaccinated and participates in running club without a mask.
“Go run. Don’t worry about how close you are to people,” Zink told her daughter. “Have a great time.”
What does play and physical activity look like this summer for Alaska kids 11 and younger?
“It’s outside, and it’s awesome,” Zink said. “For those 11 and younger — particularly if they are in a fully vaccinated family — I wouldn’t worry so much about distancing at the park and the playground.”
The Covid-19 virus passes mainly through the air we are breathing, not by touching surfaces that others have touched.
“Wiping down playground equipment isn’t something that’s recommended anymore,” Ohlsen said.
Zink encouraged kids to keep washing their hands before and after playing. Families also shouldn’t have kids play with each other if they have been feeling sick. Otherwise, Zink gave her doctor’s orders: Have a really fun summer. Get out and play, pick berries, fish, hike, run, and ride bikes while wearing a helmet.
Wearing masks outside is the family’s choice, Zink said. Kids playing outside are much less likely to spread Covid-19 than if they played inside, but a mask provides good protection for those who cannot be vaccinated, like young children. If your kids will be playing near others, then parents can consider having their children wear masks— even outside, Zink said. Some kids prefer wearing masks outside because they worry less about keeping distance from others, she said. Parents may choose to put a mask on a child who faces higher chances of a serious illness from Covid-19.
What about indoor play dates that include children 11 and younger from different households?
Indoor visits can be safer if young children are wearing masks while playing. According to the updated Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) summer camp guidance, “mask use indoors is strongly encouraged for people who are not fully vaccinated including children.” The guidance also states no child under the age of 2 should wear a mask.
Zink said parents also should consider who lives inside the home. Adults are more likely to spread Covid-19 to children than children spreading the virus to adults, she said.
Sports and camps for kids who are unvaccinated
What are some considerations for kids 11 and younger playing soccer and other sports?
Have an awesome time, but don’t share water bottles, Zink said.
Ohlsen recommended masks for kids playing indoor soccer. This follows the CDC summer camp guidance regarding mask wearing.
Masks wouldn’t be needed during outdoor soccer while the children were playing and running around. Ohlsen said children should have masks ready to put on during huddles and on the sidelines when they have sustained close contact with others and can’t stay at least 6 feet apart.
You are going on a hike with your family and you pass others. What should you do?
Say ‘Hi,’ Zink said. You’re outside, so it’s lower risk and masks aren’t needed for kids.
Are masks needed for outdoor, summer day camps attended by children 11 and younger?
Zink encouraged parents to send kids with a mask in their pocket, ready to use if they need to go inside for any reason or if they will be playing close to other kids. Check the camp’s rules, however, so your family can follow the guidance set by each.
What about indoor day camps?
Follow camp guidelines and consider having your child wear a mask. Pack extra masks in case one gets wet, Zink said.
How about overnight camps?
This is a harder question, Zink said, especially if the camp is attended by unvaccinated children. The CDC updated its online guidance related to day and overnight camps. Camps with any campers or staff who are not fully vaccinated should use multiple strategies to protect people who are not vaccinated. One strategy is assigning campers to small groups to reduce the chance of spreading Covid-19 from group to group.
Another strategy involves wearing masks. The CDC said it strongly encourages people who are not fully vaccinated, including children ages 2 and older, to wear masks while indoors. The CDC said, in general, people do not need to wear masks outside. The guidance does recommend that people who are not fully vaccinated wear a mask in crowded outdoor settings or during activities that involve sustained close contact with others who are not fully vaccinated. This is particularly important in communities with high transmission of Covid-19.
The CDC said camp directors can choose to require mask-wearing and other strategies, so be sure to check the specific guidance for your child’s camp. The federal health agency also encouraged people to support campers or staff members who choose to wear a mask, even if they are fully vaccinated.
More information for attending camps can be found at this CDC website.
How can you navigate the summer with a partially vaccinated family?
Many families are partially or mostly vaccinated, but have one or two children who are healthy overall and aren’t eligible yet to be vaccinated due to age. What steps could vaccinated family members take to protect unvaccinated children?
Zink said her family had a special discussion about this topic. This discussion will look different across families and will depend on how they balance risks and benefits.
“The vaccine is amazing at preventing me from getting really sick,” Zink said, “and it does reduce the chance that I will spread it to my unvaccinated kids in my household. But it’s not zero.”
Zink’s family decided to limit some activities until all her kids could be fully vaccinated. Zink said she is looking forward to celebrating her family’s full vaccination by eating together at a restaurant.
Play Every Day is a campaign with the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services to help Alaska children grow up at a healthy weight and encourage families to be physically active and choose healthy drinks. For more information, visit www.playeveryday.alaska.gov.