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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Outside View: Biden’s COVID team should stop treating parents like idiots

By Alyssa Rosenberg Washington Post Writers Group

Parents of young children have been asked to put up with a lot during the COVID-19 pandemic – working through day care closures, mourning lost time with grandparents, teaching 2-year-olds to wear masks. The latest insult: The Biden administration seems to think we’re too stupid to make decisions about the vaccines that could give our kids a new normal.

Lest I be accused of exaggerating, Politico reported on Thursday that “regulators are leaning toward postponing any action until the early summer, arguing that it would be simpler and less confusing to simultaneously authorize and promote two vaccines to the public, rather than green-lighting one on a faster timetable and the other down the road.” Anthony S. Fauci, the chief medical adviser to President Biden, later confirmed that strategy in an interview with CNN’s Kasie Hunt.

Moderna plans to file for an emergency use authorization for its pediatric vaccine this month. Pfizer is waiting to measure the effect of a third shot on trial participants and may not be able to move forward until June. Apparently, the administration thinks parents are too feebleminded to parse that different vaccines with different dosages might have different levels of efficacy or require a different number of shots. “Try to explain that to parents,” an unnamed administration official told Politico.

Yes, please do explain it to us. Because Fauci told Hunt he couldn’t.

It’s easy to be snide about the way so many Americans have turned themselves into amateur infectious disease experts over the past two years. But the nature of the pandemic and the government response has forced people to independently cobble together what knowledge they could, to make the best decisions for themselves and their families.

Citizen efforts such as the COVID Tracking Project and Ryan Stahlin’s DCcovidwebsite made data about infections and hospitalizations comprehensible for general interest audiences. Now, as the widespread availability of home antigen testing has made case numbers and positivity rates less-reliable indicators of the state of the pandemic, the researchers behind Biobot Analytics – which describes itself as “the first company in the world to commercialize data from sewage” – are tracking trends in wastewater samples and graphing them against reported case totals.

We’ve learned about the platforms used by Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson to design their vaccines. We’ve balanced the varying comfort and efficacy of mask designs, and weighed the power of airplane filtration systems against the risks and annoyances of long car trips.

Parents in particular have been asked to make consequential, even wrenching decisions. Does it make sense to pull a child from nursery school in advance of the birth of a younger sibling to keep everyone healthy? Is the danger that COVID-19 poses to a 2-year-old acute enough to quarantine her COVID-positive father in the basement before Christmas? Before data was available about vaccination and pregnant people, did it make sense to get a shot early in pregnancy, when a fever could pose a risk to a developing fetus?

Sometimes these questions are hard to answer because data is inadequate or because information changes so fast. Sometimes it’s difficult to choose because each family’s circumstances are so specific that no bureaucracy could anticipate everyone’s needs. But parents have made these decisions rather than succumbing to paralysis, because that’s what parenting is: doing the best you can with imperfect guidance.

Rather than worrying whether overtaxed parents are capable of parsing yet another dilemma on behalf of our children, the Biden administration should be straight with us.

If the problem is that pediatric vaccines don’t work, that’s one thing. As much as it would be terribly disappointing to many parents if this were true, that’s a much better reason not to approve the shots than the assumption that parents are dense.

Say vaccines work, but not as well against omicron lineages as against the original strain of the virus. Even then, it’s not so onerous to work through multiple scenarios to weigh the wisdom of vaccination.

In one, the pediatric vaccines have side effects, and data confirms that most children simply aren’t likely to get very sick if they get COVID-19. Under those circumstances, the Food and Drug Administration should approve the shots, and parents – especially those with children vulnerable to bad outcomes – can take the risk calculus from there.

In another, children don’t get very sick, but they are significant vectors of disease. Under those circumstances, pediatric vaccination is a crucial way to break the cycles of quarantine that have kept children out of school and care, and that risk forcing parents out of the workforce.

Now really, was that so incomprehensible?

Time and again, officials have been guilty of condescension and double-talk about COVID-19, whether they were hand-waving about the value of high-quality masks in 2020 or playing down the impact of learning loss. But it’s hard to think of a government communication about the crisis that has been quite this explicitly insulting.

At this point in the pandemic, plenty of parents are harried and exhausted and angry. But we’re not idiots.

Alyssa Rosenberg writes about the intersection of culture and politics for the Washington Post’s Opinions section.