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Post-vaccine return to normal leaves out children

Grown-ups are getting vaccinated and taking off masks. Where does that leave kids?

Schoolchildren in a Seoul neighborhood are photographed in face masks on May 17. (Yonhap)
Schoolchildren in a Seoul neighborhood are photographed in face masks on May 17. (Yonhap)


Come fall, things will largely return to normal with the vast majority of people in Korea having received at least one COVID-19 shot, health officials say. Masks will become optional outdoors for vaccinated people in the summer, and they will be able to socialize again beyond their close circles.

But the conversations about moving past the pandemic ways of life leave out children, who will be the last group to be eligible for COVID-19 vaccination. That means for them, the point of return to normal will come much later.

Korea’s vaccination campaign starts at age 18 and proceeds in descending order of age. Between now and June, vaccinations are open for people aged 65 and up.

“I don’t know how I will explain to the kids they will have to keep masks on even as grown-ups get out of them,” said a preschool teacher in Paju, Gyeonggi Province. She said the transition to maskless days could be harder to understand for smaller children, who have already acclimated to being around masked people.

“Some kids are frightened at the sight of people without masks, because they were taught that masks are what protect them from COVID-19,” she said. She said that onetime, a four-year-old in her class cried when his mask fell off while out in the playground because he thought he was now going to get sick.

“For these kids, it can be confusing or even scary when they start seeing more grown-ups without masks,” she said.

Parents with children who can’t be vaccinated say they want to remain cautious.

“I think my wife and I will still wear masks whenever possible and try not to expose ourselves to infection even after we are vaccinated,” said a Seoul resident who agreed to give only his last name Song. Song, who is in his late 30s, said his son has just turned three.

“The risk is probably very low, but it’s not a risk I want to take as a parent,” he said. “So not much is going to change for us.”

With children left out of the vaccine plan, schools will be among the last places to emerge from social distancing. 

After over a year of virtual learning and intermittent in-person classes, the Ministry of Education has promised that students at all levels, from pre-K to Grade 12, will be able to return to classrooms for the whole of the fall semester.

When schools fully reopen, unvaccinated children will have to continue to mask and follow other safety precautions, said Dr. Eun Byung-wook, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Nowon Eulji University Hospital. The only grade eligible for vaccination are high school seniors turning 18.

“But once teachers are vaccinated, the chances of their getting infected and transmitting it to students are low,” he said.

Discussions over whether to extend vaccinations to younger children are still underway in Korea, according to pediatric infectious disease specialist Dr. Choi Eun-hwa, who heads the national immunization advisory committee. “Nothing has been decided yet,” she said.

Pfizer filed for preliminary review of its vaccine for use in children as young as 12 last week, according to the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety. The vaccine has already been given the green light here for 16-year-olds and up. Moderna said Tuesday its vaccine is safe and effective for 12- to 17-year-olds, but it has yet to seek an approval for that age group here, the ministry said.

“Teenagers will need to get vaccinated eventually, but I don’t think their turn will come within this year. Early next year is probably most plausible,” said preventive medicine specialist Dr. Jung Jae-hun, who is advising the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency on its vaccine policies.

Eun of Nowon Eulji University Hospital said the cost-benefit analysis of vaccination was more complex for children.

“For one thing, the risk of COVID-19 in children is very low,” he said. No one under 19 has ever died or fallen seriously sick from COVID-19 in Korea. There have been only about five known cases of multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children, or MIS-C -- a rare complication of COVID-19 affecting children and young adults.

“Even if the regulatory authorities clear the vaccine for younger children, we still need to wait for further guidance from the immunization advisory committee on whether vaccinating them is recommended,” he said. So far, around 600,000 children in ages 12 to 15 have been vaccinated in the US, and no safety issues have been reported.

Infectious disease professor Dr. Kim Woo-joo of Korea University said, “Vaccinated adults should still be wearing face masks around children, and others who aren’t vaccinated yet, to protect them.”

“The risk of severe complications is low for children, but it’s not zero,” he said.

By Kim Arin (arin@heraldcorp.com)

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