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What the CDC's New Mask Guidelines Mean for Kids

mom putting a mask on her young son

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Key Takeaways

  • A recent update to the CDC's COVID-19 guidance means those who are fully vaccinated don't need to wear a face mask in most places.
  • This means most children will have to continue wearing masks in public settings.
  • Experts say it's important that unvaccinated kids stick to the official guidelines, but that most fully vaccinated adults are safe to go without masks.

In a somewhat unexpected move, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced last week that people who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 can go without a face mask in most places. This includes summer camps, according to the agency's latest guidance that no longer requires fully vaccinated staff and campers to wear masks or physically distance from unvaccinated campers.

The updated guidance says those who have received their single-dose Johnson & Johnson shot or both doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna vaccine don’t need to wear a face-covering or adhere to social distancing during regular activities, except where they’re required to do so according to federal, state, local or tribal laws and regulations. To date, more than 137 million Americans are fully immunized against COVID-19.

The relaxation of the masking requirement is further proof that life is going back to some level of normality. But it raises one big question: What about the kids? Reuters reported that around 600,000 U.S. children ages 12 to 15 were vaccinated during the week after the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) extended emergency use authorization for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine to cover that age group.

Still, it’s likely to be fall or later this year before younger children are offered the vaccine. So parents and guardians of kids who aren’t yet eligible for immunization are wondering where they stand when it comes to masking up. 

Last weekend, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky noted that despite the announcement, unvaccinated children, people with compromised immune systems, and those living in communities with high COVID-19 case numbers should carry on masking and social distancing. "The recommendations for those settings have not changed,” Walensky told CNN

To Mask or Not to Mask? 

As a result of the updated guidance, millions of people may find themselves in situations where they’re not sure whether they should wear a face covering or not. For instance, should vaccinated adults with unvaccinated kids keep wearing masks? What about vaccinated grandparents with unvaccinated grandkids? 

Ilan Shapiro, MD

When in indoor public spaces, school, or other crowded situations, it's important for children to continue to wear masks for their protection.

— Ilan Shapiro, MD

It all comes down to individual risk factors, says Ilan Shapiro, MD, a pediatrician with AltaMed Health Services and Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “It's important to remember that the vaccines are effective in protecting adults and you don't necessarily need to wear a mask with children who live in your household—this includes the entire family,” he says.

“But we need to continue to be aware that when we have close spaces, less air circulation and more people, the chances of contracting the virus increase. So if you're in a room with little ventilation, there's more possibility of the virus spreading.”

Dr. Shapiro adds that unvaccinated kids who don't have compromised immune systems can likely be unmasked around vaccinated grandparents with little risk.

How Long Will Kids Need to Wear Masks For? 

Dr. Shapiro points out that right now, about 22% of new COVID-19 cases are among kids. “When in indoor public spaces, school, or other crowded situations, it's important for children to continue to wear masks for their protection,” he says.

Shapiro continues, “The good thing is that the mortality rate among kids is low, but we still have the risk of severe reactions to COVID-19 like MIS-C (multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children, a condition where the heart, lungs, kidneys, brain, and other body parts can become inflamed)."

Carol Winner, MPH

One child lost to a preventable disease like COVID-19 is a human failure, when we know that the spread of the disease can be curtailed by wearing masks.

— Carol Winner, MPH

Carol Winner, MPH, public health expert and founder of social distancing brand Give Space, points out that less than half of the U.S. population has been fully vaccinated. “One child lost to a preventable disease like COVID-19 is a human failure, when we know that the spread of the disease can be curtailed by wearing masks,” she says. “Adults and children are still vulnerable to contracting and possibly transmitting COVID-19 from those unvaccinated.”

She explains that children with COVID-19 often present as asymptomatic, and if infected, a mask can minimize exposure to an unvaccinated adult or child. “We are still learning about the long-term effects of COVID-19 on kids, and there are children experiencing long hauler symptoms and other complications,” Dr. Shapiro adds.

What This Means For You

Remember, it's completely natural to feel worried and protective of your kids. Try to look to trusted sources for information about COVID-19, and speak to your pediatrician if you need clarification of the CDC guidelines or have any concerns about your child's health.

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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Guidance for operating youth and summer camps during COVID-19. Updated May 28, 2021.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. When you’ve been fully vaccinated. Updated May 16, 2021.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. COVID-19 vaccinations in the United States. Updated June 4, 2021.