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Parents of children under 5 are waiting for COVID-19 guidance

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Parents of young children are exhausted - grappling with child care and the desire to keep their children safe during the surge of omicron. They often can't avail themselves of strategies urged on the general population for vaccines, and at-home tests haven't been authorized for the very young. Many parents say they just feel forgotten and alone. Kaiser Health News reporter Bram Sable-Smith is one of them. He tells us what it's like to raise an infant in St. Louis.

BRAM SABLE-SMITH, BYLINE: Just before my son's last well-baby visit, my wife and I were grappling with whether to postpone his nine-month checkup. The CDC's guidance for children too young for the vaccine is to, one, avoid crowds and, two, stay out of poorly ventilated spaces. But the last time we bundled the baby up for a trip to the pediatrician, the office was stuffy and full of kids from around St. Louis all lining up to get their COVID shots.

(SOUNDBITE OF BABY CRYING)

B SABLE-SMITH: My wife, Emma, did not love the idea of heading back into that.

EMMA SABLE-SMITH: Doesn't make me feel great (laughter) - waking up and hearing all the...

(SOUNDBITE OF BABY COOING)

E SABLE-SMITH: ...Normal news reports about cases doubling and hospitalizations being up 50%.

B SABLE-SMITH: We decided to take the baby to the checkup after learning the pediatrician had moved all COVID testing for this current omicron wave outside to the parking lot. That's the kind of risk analysis we're constantly having to make while we wait to hear when our baby might be eligible for a vaccine. Moderna recently said it will have new data in March for a vaccine for 2- to 5-year-olds. An actual shot for those kids might come soon after that, but it's unclear how long our son and other kids under age 2 might have to wait.

Meanwhile, here in Missouri, it's pretty common to see people without masks. There's that one grocery store clerk we try to avoid and the checkout guy at the butcher shop. Emma spent 20 minutes in line at the pharmacy recently in front of a guy who had this mask off, dangling from one ear.

E SABLE-SMITH: And I wish that we lived in a place where I could just turn to him and say, hey, do you mind putting on your mask? I have a baby at home who's unvaccinated.

B SABLE-SMITH: To be the parent of an unvaccinated kid is to feel constantly at the mercy of the whims of strangers. That's why our son has only been inside seven buildings since he was born. I worry about the little things he's missing.

Laura Swofford is a mother of a 4- and 6-year-old, also in St. Louis. There was a brief moment last spring when she felt OK taking her kids to places like Target or the library.

LAURA SWOFFORD: We are just doing some of those things that seem really mundane. But when you have small children, it's like, let's go out of the house to the shiny place. And it's, like, a really big deal, and it gives you sanity in your day.

B SABLE-SMITH: But then came the delta wave, then omicron. Health officials in Missouri urged everyone to be more vigilant about wearing masks, but a lot of people just ignored that.

SWOFFORD: I feel very much like just standing in the middle of crowds, waving my hands and saying, remember there are a lot of us who still can't vaccinate our children.

B SABLE-SMITH: Friends and family understand, but hanging out with them typically involves negotiating safety protocols. Invite to the karaoke bar? Sounds fun, but I'm just not there yet. Playdate with old friends and their kids? We could do something outside. And if you do want to socialize indoors, it's amazing how quickly you can spend $500 on rapid tests - four tests to have another couple over for dinner, 10 to be inside at Christmas. At over $12 a pop, it adds up quick. That's if you can even find them. Now, with omicron, it'd be nice to have a little more official guidance for parents with kids under 5 about what to do.

ASHISH PREMKUMAR: Like, it - the whole process just is not friendly.

B SABLE-SMITH: Dr. Ashish Premkumar is an OB-GYN in Chicago. He has a 4-year-old in daycare and a 1-year-old at home with a nanny. He considered pulling the 4-year-old out of daycare until cases calmed down, but COVID swept through the family before he could decide. At-home tests are not approved for kids under 2, so figuring out if a baby has COVID requires one resource many parents lack - time during the workday.

PREMKUMAR: OK, my kid's got a runny nose. I have to arrange for a test. There is no testing sites available. I got to call my pediatrician. OK, I have to do a televisit. That takes some time to be able to organize and arrange.

(SOUNDBITE OF BABY GRUNTING)

B SABLE-SMITH: You might be asking, what's the big deal? Most kids who get sick do not die. Omicron symptoms are supposed to be milder. Plus, he would then have natural immunity, right? But parents of very young children are worried about long-term possibilities, even if they're uncommon. Kids with severe COVID have developed conditions like multisystem inflammatory syndrome and even long COVID.

We've noticed a lot of Americans saying it's inevitable that we're all going to get infected. But parents are not ready to give up yet, and we're not going to shrug off the risks for our baby, not while he is unprotected. And it seems he might be unprotected for a while still.

SIMON: That's reporter Bram Sable-Smith with our partner Kaiser Health News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.