Editor’s Note: Kara Alaimo, an associate professor in the Lawrence Herbert School of Communication at Hofstra University, writes about women and social media. She was spokeswoman for international affairs in the Treasury Department during the Obama administration. Follow her on Twitter @karaalaimo. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion at CNN.

CNN  — 

The number of children under 5 hospitalized with Covid-19 has reached a record high, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday. This is partly because kids in this age group aren’t eligible for vaccines, and the latest Omicron variant is explosively contagious. There are also fears that Omicron – which seems to largely affect the upper airway – may cause more severe cases in little ones, who have smaller airways.

Kara  Alaimo

The situation has left parents of the youngest kids (including me, with two daughters under 5) in crisis. But there are things we can all do to help.

Here’s what it’s like to be a mom of young children right now. At my local supermarket, a sign on the door asks patrons to wear masks. But the grocery store doesn’t enforce the rule, and some adults selfishly choose not to do so. This means that I can’t bring my own baby into the store when I need a gallon of milk, because she’s too young to wear a mask (she could suffocate, which is a risk of all kids under 2), and, with the virus circulating so widely, it’s simply unsafe to expose her to other people.

So, when I’m not at work, I practically live under house arrest. Fortunately, my husband is able to run our errands. But not all parents have partners or others in their house who can.

Even for relatively privileged parents like us, life is full of impossible choices these days. Our toddler, for example, is bored in her current classroom at preschool. Her teacher told us months ago that she was ready to move up to a class for older kids. But we’re holding her back because the next level classroom has far more students – and, therefore, would bring much greater potential exposure.

Meanwhile, our pediatrician’s office recently asked me to give up my baby’s well visit appointment time so the practice could fit in more sick kids. I did so – in part because I was afraid that if I brought her to the doctor, she might catch the coronavirus from other kids in the office. So now my baby is behind on critical screenings and vaccines that would protect her from getting other diseases.

And, since my baby is too young for a mask, I won’t bring her to daycare. But finding in-home childcare providers is nearly impossible. On my local Facebook forum for childcare providers and families, there are endless posts by parents seeking babysitters and nannies – far more than the rare post by someone looking for such work.

What’s more, while we understand that my husband – an emergency room physician – needs to show up for work, parents who are non-essential workers like me are still expected by many employers to work in person. The thought of bringing Omicron home to my daughters is terrifying.

A lot of the national conversation is (justifiably) focused on whether public schools should close during this latest surge, and there’s a measure of understandable anger at those who choose to remain unvaccinated. But when we focus our attention on re-opening at all costs, we fail to acknowledge the reality that an enormous number of those in our midst who aren’t vaccinated are young children.

While Covid-19 poses risks to all of us, children 5 and older are at least eligible for vaccines – and aren’t seeing much of an increase in hospitalizations. But the parents of younger kids – vulnerable little ones who don’t have these protections and are getting hospitalized with this virus in alarming numbers – are truly in terrible situations.

As dark as this situation feels, there are small things we can all do about it that could make a bigger difference than you may think.

First, grocery stores and other privately owned businesses should require their customers to wear masks. True, this wouldn’t be a panacea. Cloth masks don’t seem to provide enough protection from Omicron, but there aren’t enough N95s to go around. Still, if everyone were masked, it would be a lot safer for parents like me to bring our babies into stores when we need essential items. Retailers that don’t enforce such mandates send a disturbing signal about their lack of care for small children. It’s a message parents won’t forget.

Second, we all need to help each other out. Do you have a neighbor with young kids? Ask if you can pick up anything for them next time you run to the store. Does your colleague have a toddler? Let them work from home if they prefer and it’s at all possible. And ask if you can help them with a project. (Many of us are trying to limit our childcare, since every person we allow into our homes brings potential exposure.) Are you retired or out of work and willing to temporarily work as a childcare provider for a local family in need? Let them know!

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    A great place to ask for and offer this kind of help is local community forums on social media. For example, last month, someone who came to work in my home told me about a local single mom who needed supplies for her newborn son. She had recently arrived from Brazil and had almost no family or friends to support her. I asked for help for this woman on a Facebook forum for people who live in my town. Within days, I had filled my garage with donations for her.

    Parents of young children aren’t OK right now. And while no one can make the virus go away or make difficult decisions about school and medical appointments easier, there’s still a whole lot more that companies and community members could be doing to help us out.