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Robert Gehrke: Here’s how some mixed families — with some kids vaccinated, others not — are trying to navigate the tail end of the pandemic

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

For a while it looked like it might not happen, but Joshua Robbins’ oldest daughter will be able to finish high school and wear her cap and gown to pick up her diploma in person, thanks to her vaccine.

It’s a different story for her 7-year-old brother, who isn’t old enough to get his shot yet. That, combined with a history of breathing problems, including a five-day stay in the pediatric intensive care, means he remains in “a pretty tight bubble,” Robbins told me.

Robbins said he has his son on a list hoping he can participate in one of the vaccine trials, hoping to get his shot a little sooner.

The West Jordan family is not unique. All over Utah, these mixed families — with some children vaccinated and some still likely weeks, perhaps months from getting a shot — are trying to figure out family vacations and summer sports knowing members of their family are still not free from risk.

It’s not just kids who are still vulnerable. Lynne Blackwood Collins’ 17-year-old daughter just got her second shot, but they’re still taking precautions because her son has a blood cancer and doctors aren’t sure how much a vaccine bolsters his compromised immune system.

Chris Reilly’s family has planned trips with family to Idaho and Colorado this summer — all of them vaccinated except his 13-year-old daughter. She has a bubble of friends she’s allowed to see, and Reilly said she’s wearing a mask when she is with them.

“I’m constantly warning her about the variants and hospitalizations for teenagers and telling her she’s the only one who’s not vaccinated. We’ve just got to keep her safe for a few more months,” he said.

It is just around the corner. It’s anticipated that the vaccines will be approved for ages 12 to 15 by late spring or early summer.

In the meantime, we have seen in recent weeks a moderate uptick in cases among young people. Through Friday, Utah was averaging nearly 110 cases per day in school-aged kids, those between 5 and 18, a 38% increase from a week earlier. Cases among the 14-18 age group shot up 60% in the course of a week.

Dr. Angela Dunn announced Thursday that there was an active outbreak at Elk Ridge Middle School in South Jordan and more than 40 cases had been identified in two weeks.

As a recent article in The Atlantic noted, vaccines have turned Covid into “a young person’s disease.”

On one hand, that’s progress. Someone over the age of 85 who contracts Covid is about 28 times as likely to be hospitalized as a young person and, since the start of the pandemic, nearly 3,000 times as likely to die.

But the conventional wisdom — that kids are somehow impervious to the virus — touches a nerve with Dr. Andrew Pavia, head of pediatric infectious disease at University of Utah hospital.

“As a pediatrician, it hurts us to hear kids don’t get that sick, so don’t worry,” he said. More than 340 children under the age of 14 have been hospitalized. On top of that, about 100 children have been hospitalized with Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children or MIS-C, he said, and two have died.

While research is in the early stages, he said, one study out of Italy found that 60% of children experience some sort of long-haul COVID symptoms for at least 90 days.

“It’s true, a lot of kids have got it and recovered,” Pavia said. “Well, that’s cold comfort for the kids who have gotten severely ill.”

Pavia said we “don’t have a full picture” of whether the variants are more infectious for children. The strains are showing up more in kids and it has been suggested the variants bind to children’s receptors more easily. But it also could be that there is just generally more transmission among young people.

This week, we will hit the legislative-mandated end to COVID health orders across Utah. Last month, the state health department updated its order related to schools requiring masks in schools until June 15, but districts in Kane, San Juan and Iron counties have adopted policies letting parents opt out of the requirement.

Dunn said last week the department believes that violates the state order, but enforcement is up to local entities and the state would not intervene, signaling to other districts they could do the same.

“I really think it’s critical that we keep masking for the rest of the school year, and we’re going to know a lot more about where we stand in August,” Pavia told me.

As for those family vacations with unvaccinated kids, Pavia said car trips and outdoor activities can be done safely. Going to crowded places — like Disneyland, which reopened last week — or congested indoor events is not a good idea.

There is so much good news. Despite slowing recently, the vaccination effort has gone well and new outreach programs should reach some who have fallen through the cracks. Cases have plummeted since shots became available and deaths are way down.

We’re almost there. If we keep mask requirements in schools through the end of the year and the rest of us voluntarily mask up in public — whether there is a mandate or not — we can prevent exposure to young people who aren’t eligible for vaccines and whose lives have already been disproportionately disrupted.

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