Welcome to COVID Questions, TIME’s advice column. We’re trying to make living through the pandemic a little easier, with expert-backed answers to your toughest coronavirus-related dilemmas. While we can’t and don’t offer medical advice—those questions should go to your doctor—we hope this column will help you sort through this stressful and confusing time. Got a question? Write to us at email@example.com.
Today, A.S. in Wisconsin asks:
My best friend is getting married in September and I’m in the wedding. I just found out at least one of the groomsmen has refused to be vaccinated, and the couple is not requiring vaccines or COVID-19 tests from their guests. I have been vaccinated, but I have young children who are not. I will not bring my children, but am I putting them at risk by attending? How do I balance wanting to support my friend but also protecting my family?
As I read your question, you’re asking two different things: First, there’s “what sacrifices should I make to protect my children from COVID-19?” Second, there’s “how do I navigate the social challenges of the pandemic?” Like so many other questions related to the pandemic, neither of these have easy or definitive solutions. But we spoke with a psychiatrist and several pediatric physicians to try and sort them out.
For starters, it’s important to consider the scientific evidence about the spread of COVID-19. You’ve already made one important decision that reduces the risk to yourself and your children: getting vaccinated. However, vaccination can’t completely eliminate the risks facing you or your kids. Emerging evidence suggests that even fully vaccinated people can spread the virus—especially the now-dominant Delta variant—to others. Concerns about this possibility led the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in July to once again recommend that even fully vaccinated people wear masks indoors in most areas of the country.
So if your question is whether you could potentially go to this wedding, get infected with COVID-19, and bring it home to your kids, the answer is yes, there’s a chance that could happen. That would be true even if everyone there is vaccinated, though that would reduce the risk.
That said, children have so far proven remarkably resilient in the face of this virus. As of Aug. 18, 430 U.S. children have died of the coronavirus, and while the death of any child is an unspeakable tragedy, that’s a small fraction of the nearly 630,000 overall U.S. deaths so far. Furthermore, children face lots of dangers whenever they go out into the world, whether it’s for school, daycare or playdates. How a parent weighs any potential danger to their children comes down to their risk tolerance, says Dr. Allison Messina, the chief of the infectious disease division at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital.
Messina advises parents who are nervous about their children getting COVID-19 to ask themselves a question: what are you really worried about? As she points out, the data suggest previously healthy kids are at low risk of severe disease from the virus. However, the Delta variant makes this calculation harder—pediatric ICUs in hard-hit states are hitting capacity, but it’s unclear if Delta is inherently more dangerous to kids or if more kids are falling ill simply because this strain is so transmissible and kids under 12 can’t yet be vaccinated.
“When I answer these questions, I don’t really answer them as ‘you should’ or ‘you shouldn’t,’” Messina says. “I just say, these are the risks that you would face if you decided to do this.”
If you decide to attend the wedding, there are other ways you could reduce your risk of bringing the virus home to your kids. You could wear a mask, for instance, though they are better at preventing infected people from spreading the virus, rather than helping the wearer avoid getting infected, so consider wearing one at home for a while after you get back (getting tested afterwards and self-isolating if you’re positive could be smart, too). Depending on your relationship, you could ask the couple getting married to require masks, even if just for unvaccinated guests. You could also decide to attend the ceremony but skip the reception to lessen your overall exposure, but given that you’re in the wedding party, that could be socially difficult. (Also consider the venue—outdoor, well-ventilated spaces are generally safer than indoor, poorly ventilated ones.)
That brings us to the second part of your question: how to deal with the social side of your dilemma. The first step is having a conversation with your soon-to-be-wed friend, says Dr. Sophia Albott, a psychiatrist with the University of Minnesota Medical School and the practice University of Minnesota Physicians. Discuss your concerns, talk about potential solutions, and frame things around your children’s safety, she says. “These conversations are difficult to have, but there is potentially an opportunity even for some reaffirmation of their friendship or some sort of two-party empathy.”
If you decide not to attend the wedding or minimize your participation, your friend could be angry or disappointed. Weddings are always stressful, but the upheaval of the pandemic has drawn up a lot of extreme emotions in many people. Albott suggests that you work to keep your conversation respectful, and be sure to acknowledge how your friend is feeling. That’s especially wise if, like so many other engaged couples, your friend had to delay or otherwise change their wedding plans because of the virus.
Finally, while you’re worrying about your children and friends, Albott recommends showing yourself a little kindness, too. Problems like these aren’t easy to navigate, and it’s important to make sure that you’re getting enough sleep, exercise, and connection with other people. “The pandemic has just gone on so long, that I think everyone is tired,” says Albott. “As much as we can, [we should] take care of ourselves, give ourselves a break, and give other people a break.”
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Contributor: Tara Law