Pediatrician on navigating the new world of optional masks for parents and kids under 5

By Crystal Ligori (OPB), Elizabeth Castillo (OPB) and Tiffany Camhi (OPB)
March 11, 2022 10:57 p.m.

Oregon’s mask mandate for most indoor spaces expires on Friday just before midnight. But for parents and children younger than 5 who cannot yet be vaccinated, it’s a turning point that means navigating a new world of optional masks in schools and other public places.

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Peter Reed is a pediatrician and the president of Portland-based Pediatric Associates of the Northwest. He joined All Things Considered host Tiffany Camhi to discuss what parents should keep in mind as we head into this next phase of the pandemic.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Tiffany Camhi: Federal mask mandates will still be in place and that means masking up at airports and on public transit in Oregon. But places like schools and businesses can make up their own rules. So what conversations should parents be having with their kids about this new change?

Peter Reed: Parents and kids need to talk about their comfort about going with a mask or without a mask. Just because the mask mandate is being lifted at the state level, doesn’t mean that going unmasked is right for every child or every family. Kids should feel comfortable wearing a mask if they want to keep wearing a mask. And for some families, the decision to mask will be really clear if they have a child or another person in the household or in the family who has a health condition that puts them at a high risk for severe disease. Then more caution is warranted.

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Camhi: And let’s not forget that kids can make their own decisions too. So what role could peer pressure play in these choices?

Reed: Certainly we know that kids are vulnerable to peer pressure, but kids are also resilient and are learning tools to stand up for each other. There’s a lot in the world that we can’t control, but we can decide how we’ll show up for each other and we can encourage our kids to treat their peers with kindness if they decide to wear a mask or not wear a mask. And we can encourage them to stand up for one another and not be a bystander to bullying or to teasing.

Camhi: And for parents of kids under 5 — who can’t get vaccinated yet — should they feel totally safe about taking their own masks off?

Reed: There’s not enough information yet to know what the risk is going to be after the masks are off for kids who are not vaccinated under 5. We know that vaccines are really safe and really effective and they’ve been very safe and effective for kids older than five. And so I think it’s very reasonable for parents of kids who are under five and kids who are under 5 to continue to wear masks.

Students sit together on the floor of a classroom wearing face masks and looking at worksheets.

(Left to right) Donovan Cha, Mar Brassea, and Vida Hampson work together to solve a math problem in Eric Marsh’s third-grade class at Prescott Elementary in Portland, Feb. 8, 2022. Masks will become optional at Oregon's large school district's starting as soon as March 14, the Monday after the end of the state's indoor mask mandate.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

Camhi: What are some other concerns that you’re hearing from your patients and from the parents?

Reed: My patients and their parents are asking questions about whether it’s safe to remove masks when the mandates lift or if it’s too early. And they’re asking about vaccination rates and for those who are not vaccinated, they’re still asking about the safety of the vaccines. And so we’re doing a lot of counseling still about [how] the vaccines are safe and effective, and we are encouraging everybody who can to get vaccinated. And for those who feel like they’re not comfortable taking their mask off to keep wearing it.

Camhi: The Oregon Health Authority decided to relax these rules because hospitalization numbers have dropped. What happens if that number starts going up again?

Reed: One way to think about the pandemic and the severity of the pandemic is as a dial. When we had the mask mandates and there was the omicron wave, we were dialed up to a ten with all of the protections, including the mask mandate. And now that the hospitalizations have reduced, we can dial back a little bit and be a little bit more relaxed and normalize our lives. When there’s another variant or the hospitalization rates go back, we’re going to have to dial up again and that may mean re-instituting mask mandates. And if you have any questions or concerns about vaccines or about whether or not to keep wearing a mask, I definitely encourage you to talk to your pediatrician.

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