But already, momentum in the country is shifting toward reopening. States are ending their mask mandates and COVID-19 restrictions. How low cases go in the U.S. later this year will depend on the speed at which we inoculate harder-to-reach populations, as well as continued vigilance among the still-unvaccinated. Letting up after a year of social distancing is tempting, but as my colleague Katherine Wu writes, our vaccine cheat days add up.
Variants may also influence case levels, but it’s not entirely clear how much. Early on, scientists in the U.K. thought the B.1.1.7 strain might be disproportionately more contagious among children than among adults, but the pattern has not held up. That may be because the variant was first detected after schools in the U.K. opened in the fall, explains Oliver Ratmann, a statistician at Imperial College London who has modeled the implications of the variant for kids. Then schools closed and mobility patterns changed over the holidays, which complicated the preliminary trends. The earlier pattern of B.1.1.7 in kids might just have reflected who had a chance to spread the virus at the time, especially because U.K. schools took fewer precautions, such as mask wearing, compared with many in the U.S. The evidence on whether this variant causes more severe illness is also mixed.
Read: Your body is far from helpless against coronavirus variants
What is clear, though, is that B.1.1.7 is more transmissible than the original virus among all age groups. In some places, that could tip the balance toward rising cases, but other factors are clearly at play too. For example, Michigan has a lot of B.1.1.7 cases and is experiencing a terrible COVID-19 surge, but Florida, which also has high numbers of B.1.1.7, is not. “The variants don’t help, but they’re not fully to blame,” Nuzzo said. The same precautions that worked before—including good ventilation, masking, and social distancing—still work against B.1.1.7.
All of these concerns could come to a head in schools, which are one of the main places where unvaccinated people—e.g., kids—will congregate. As the U.S. is already seeing, school outbreaks do happen, but they can be contained with precautions in place. This means younger kids, who likely won’t get vaccinated before the fall, may have to continue to wear masks indoors. But the benefits of in-person schooling are significant enough, experts told me, that schools should open even if kids can’t get shots yet.
The trickier question is what kids can do outside of school when it comes to playdates, sports, and extracurricular activities. In Michigan, officials have suggested that high-school athletics and the socializing around sports—rather than classes themselves—are driving the uptick in cases among teens. Parents and kids will have to decide together which risks are worth taking. Newland told me his 15-year-old daughter sees her core group of friends and plays sports. But she’s decided to keep taking virtual classes, even though her risk of contracting COVID-19 at school is low, because exposure to any cases at school could trigger a quarantine that keeps her from playing sports, which is important to her. That’s the tradeoff they’ve decided to make, but they’d of course prefer not having to make it. As Newland said, “I feel much better about my other daughter, who got vaccinated at 17.”