Analysis & Comment

Opinion | Unvaxxed, Unmasked and Putting Our Kids at Risk

For days now, vaccinated Americans have been trying to come to terms with the new advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about the rapidly spreading Delta variant and a spike of Covid cases in states with high populations of unvaccinated people. Officials encouraged everyone in high-risk areas to start wearing masks in public indoor spaces again and recommended that all teachers and students wear masks in schools.

It’s difficult not to be angry at the irresponsible behavior of those who got us here. For parents with children with health problems or who are too young to be vaccinated (or both), it’s doubly infuriating.

My daughter, Layla, was born three months early because of a life-threatening disorder called HELLP syndrome I developed during pregnancy. She weighed just two pounds at birth. She spent the first months of her life in a neonatal intensive care unit and her first years being shuttled to and from emergency rooms and specialists because her lungs didn’t have a chance to fully develop.

I’ve seen my child be intubated. I’ve had her turn blue in my arms — more than once. I’ve watched nurses revive her.

While some parents worried about getting enough sleep or diaper changes, I was wondering when Layla’s central line IV would be taken out or whether she managed to digest any of the milk they gave her through the feeding tube in her nose. To be able to take your health for granted is a privilege.

Understand the Delta Variant

    • What We Know: The variant is spreading rapidly worldwide and fueling new outbreaks in the U.S., mainly among the unvaccinated. Here’s what scientists understand about it so far.
    • Who is Being Hospitalized: People with compromised immune systems and the unvaccinated make up a high percentage of patients who end up in the hospital in N.Y.C.
    • Delta Variant Map: The patchwork nature of the coronavirus vaccination campaign in the United States has left people in many parts of the country still vulnerable to the virus and the fast-spreading Delta
    • C.D.C.’s Changing Mask Guidance: In communities with growing caseloads, vaccinated and unvaccinated people should return to wearing masks indoors in public areas, health officials said.

    As I’ve watched the Delta variant spread, I’ve thought back to Layla’s early years and about my lingering uncertainty for her continued health. I am not alone. There are parents across the country right now who are terrified that their sick children will contract Covid-19 and a cascade of illnesses will overtake them.

    This is not a fear that ever fully goes away, even if or when your child recovers. When you have seen your child seriously ill, there is a part of your brain that believes he or she can be taken from you at any time — because you’ve seen it almost happen.

    My family lives in New York City, where over 70 percent of adults have gotten at least one dose and over 65 percent are fully vaccinated. But we plan to follow the updated recommendations as though we were in a high-risk state. We’ll do so not only because of the city’s extreme density and our personal story, but also because we care about our community and the health of our neighbors.

    Looking at the statistics on how many people willingly go unvaccinated — or refuse to wear masks, even in risky situations — it’s obvious that not everyone is equally conscientious.

    It’s true that the reasons so many Americans still remain unvaccinated — even as we see hospitalizations of the unprotected rise — are myriad. Some have fallen prey to misinformation or conspiracy theories, some still don’t realize the vaccine is free and often available at their local pharmacy, and others’ trust in authority has been eroded by institutional failure. But while some Americans are unvaccinated or maskless because of access problems, a majority of the unvaccinated are making a choice.

    When I listen to the scorn directed at the Covid vaccine from the yet-to-be-convinced, I think about the hours I spent on the phone begging our insurance company to cover a vaccine that would prevent Layla from getting RSV, a virus that can be deadly in preemies. The insurer refused, and we couldn’t afford the out-of-pocket cost. (Layla ended up in the hospital after contracting it.)

    Today, Layla is healthy. But I will never know what long-term impact her lung development had on her, and we have no idea what a Covid infection might do to a kid who used to need machines to breathe. The same is true for children with other underlying health conditions like asthma, or those who are immunocompromised. And while the rate of kids being hospitalized or dying is low, numbers don’t mean anything if it’s your child behind the statistic.

    What I do know is this: I’m furious that the physical and mental health of countless American children are at the mercy of the willfully ignorant and the irrationally fearful. It’s enraging to listen to people complain that wearing a mask or getting a simple shot is akin to an assault on their freedom while children who have no choice bear the brunt of their nonsense.

    Most of all, I’m tired of hearing about how my anger won’t change hearts and minds, or that I need to respect other people’s choices — even when those choices put others’ health and lives at risk.

    This isn’t a matter of simple disagreement or bipartisan bickering: Gross selfishness masked as American individualism is killing our country and traumatizing our children. That’s not “intolerant” or an overreaction; it’s a fact.

    Anger is the very least we can do.

    The truth is that all of our kids, no matter what their health status, are suffering.

    After all, my daughter isn’t thinking about her lungs right now. She just wants to go to birthday parties again. She wants to go to school without plexiglass blocking her view of the blackboard and to be able to eat lunch in the cafeteria instead of quietly in her classroom. She wants to take her mask off — she’d like to see her friends’ faces again.

    Those who have the ability to be vaccinated and masked have no reasonable excuse not to be. Either you’re someone who cares about their neighbors and community or you’re not. Either you’re willing to sacrifice for the good of others or you’re not. And it shouldn’t take the thought of sick children to get people to do the right thing.

    A few months ago, a mother I didn’t know started chatting with me as our children played nearby. After some pleasantries, she asked if I was vaccinated — a question I assumed she posed because I was standing within a few feet of her. It turns out, however, that she wanted to vent about how she’d never let the vaccine “within a hundred feet” of her family. “We’re healthy,” she scoffed.

    How lucky for her.

    Jessica Valenti is the author of six books on feminism and publishes the newsletter “All in Her Head.”

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