HELENA, Montana – My unvaccinated 7 year old son started chopping and sneezing in late September when hospitals in our home state of Montana started to buckle under the recent surge in Covid. I got him tested when his symptoms wouldn’t go away.
The cotton swab went up his nose and Thomas snorted from my lap and almost tore the six inch swab from the nurse’s fingers. It came out bent, but the sample was fine, and when she put it away I asked a question I already knew the answer to.
“So are we in quarantine?” She nodded. It would take about 72 hours to get the results, she said.
The next day, four-year-old twins Anna and Karen began to cough and sneeze like their brother. They were already ordered to stay home after being exposed to a Covid-positive classmate, but they too were hit with a new quarantine while we waited for the test results.
We had already experienced two Covid quarantines and summer camp closings in August. In September our family achieved a new achievement on our pandemic trip: the twins entered a quarantine within a quarantine and at the same time ran to their brother’s quarantine.
For parents of children who are too young to get vaccinated, the news that Pfizer and BioNTech have found their vaccine safe and effective for children ages 5-11 is a light at the end of a seemingly endless quarantine tunnel . Do you remember the lockdowns that defined spring 2020 for everyone? We parents are still living it, in increments of up to 10 days. If we’re not in quarantine, we’ll prepare for the next one.
My wife Beagan and I now wince every time we see a school number on our caller ID. Are they closing again? Will our bosses understand this time? Can we find part-time care at the last minute? Are we even allowed to call in this outside help when we are in quarantine?
But record hospital admissions and the surge in Covid deaths put the problems of our caged – but healthy – family into perspective. On the same day my son was tested, Montana was in the top 5 states for new case numbers and the governor sent National Guard troops to help hospitals bursting with Covid patients. The 1,326 new Covid cases reported by the state included 118 children under the age of 10.
Our pediatric practice is part of the St. Peter’s Health System, which introduced crisis standards for medical care. Several hundred meters away in the doctor’s office, all eight intensive care beds in the main wing of the hospital were occupied, six of them with Covid patients.
Here we were, just three weeks into the school year, and we were drained. Beagan and I spent much of August and September looking after the kids and our jobs. How bad could it get when the cold weather forces us all inside?
To top it off, we discovered that the two kittens we adopted from the local animal shelter had ringworm. The fungal infection spread to the whole family and the dog.
My wife put it aptly: “I feel like a shitty parent, a shitty employee, a shitty spouse, a shitty pet owner. I just feel like shit. “
Children are much less likely to become seriously ill or die of Covid-19 than adults. But they make up about 15% of all Covid cases, and the highly transmissible Delta variant has led to an increase in child hospitalizations. Some children with the disease can also develop “long covid” or the sometimes fatal multi-system inflammatory syndrome.
Despite the spike, many people in Helena and across the state seem to be leaving the pandemic behind. Maskless faces indoors, crowded events, and low vaccination rates are the norm, aided by new state laws hampering the ability of local health officials to implement joint anti-Covid measures.
I feel weird when I’m one of the few masked customers or employees in the grocery store, or when my kids are the only masked ones in the Children’s Science Museum. So I asked Dr. Lauren Wilson, Montana director of the American Academy of Pediatrics, asked if I was being too careful.
Wilson said parents of unvaccinated children are rightly cautious, not just because their children could get Covid, but because they could bring it home and pass it on to family members at risk. It is also important to balance protecting children with taking care of their needs, especially their mental health, she added.
This can be difficult when parents experience “decision fatigue” from the many choices they make every day about the safety of their families, she said. It is difficult to assess risk with so many people ignoring public health recommendations.
Our waiting time for test results extended from three days to five. On the last day I wrote this essay between tea parties, broke up fistfights, played Frozen on TV for the umpteenth time, and gave in to my son’s request to have potato chips for breakfast. The children’s negative Covid test results arrived towards the end of the day.
Then we found that the 7-year-old son could soon join the ranks of the vaccinated if the Food and Drug Administration approves the Pfizer BioNTech syringe for his age group.
It’s going to be a big day for us, along with the twins’ 5th birthday in spring. In the meantime I’ve started coughing and sneezing. Given the kids’ tests came back negative, I think I’ll skip getting one myself in hopes of breaking our quarantine streak.
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