Parents are not OK after three years of Covid and a brutal winter of RSV and respiratory illnesses
With kids heading back to school and daycare after the holidays, weary parents fear what illness awaits them next during this brutal respiratory virus season.
Since October, RSV, a respiratory virus that is often more severe in young children and adults, struck early and cases began to rise quickly. Influenza cases began to rise soon after, while Covid-19 continued to spread, with new variants surfacing.
At least 24 million illnesses and 16,000 deaths have occurred due to influenza this season; About 15% of the US population lives in a county with a “high” community level of Covid-19; There were about 14 RSV hospitalizations for every 100,000 children under 5 in the last week of complete data — about eight times higher than the overall hospitalization rate.
CNN spoke with parents across the country about the challenges of this flu season. They described canceling Christmas, missing trips home to see family, and pulling their children out of kindergarten to keep them safe from illness.
Here are some of their stories, as told in their own words. Their responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Michaela Riley of Issaquah, Washington
I am a single mom living in the suburbs of Seattle. I work for one of the major corporations here. From the outside, I look successful. I have it high in my title, I constantly get promotions and recognition. Internally, I’m tearing myself apart from the stress of being sick, never taking real vacations, and now not being able to pay for my basic needs.
I had to work during the holidays and I had my children. My parents would watch them. Then they got norovirus, which also canceled Christmas. Then my daughter’s father got a terrible flu, so my backup plan for Christmas was cancelled. We still didn’t celebrate Christmas until January 7th because everyone was recovering.
I have daughters aged 4 and 11. Basically, all of November one of us was sick. My kids got RSV and were so sick for 14 days. After that, I got it. I had no vacation time, so I had to work from home with them. It was a very long time, trying.
As a single parent, I was always focused on keeping all the balls in the air. But now it’s much harder than what I’m actually doing is making decisions about which ball to release, just to keep myself ahead.
I’ve been using every day off or when my kids are sick, I’m sick or I have to take a mental health day because I’ve been completely overwhelmed since quarantine started. I got to go camping last year with my family. I got Covid for the fourth time and had to cancel. I’m getting a little bored.
The group I work with has been very supportive and understanding of my situation. They honestly helped me through the worst times.
I have this hashtag for 2023: #BeFree23. Instead of focusing on the struggle, I focus on what works in my life. I feel better about 2023. I don’t think anything will change, but changing my mindset is the only thing I have control over.
Jason Hecht of Ann Arbor, Michigan
I am a doctor who works in critical care with a wife who works in primary care. Not only are we struggling as healthcare workers with the massive demands of this season, but we are also struggling much more at home.
The last month or two have probably been the hardest mentally and emotionally I’ve ever had in my life. We have a 2 year old and a 3 month old. It was our youngest who got sick about a month ago and ended up in the ICU on the ventilator with RSV.
At the time, we had a healthy, thriving 2-month-old without a problem in the world. To see him collapse so quickly and be at the point of death in the intensive care unit was very sobering for me and my wife. Seeing your child so sick – that part alone has been very emotionally draining.
I was very aware of how serious his illness was. It was difficult to play the role of father, husband and caregiver because the pull was so strong to switch to health care provider mode.
We had to completely turn our lives upside down, take both children out of kindergarten. We are still struggling to find a reliable source of childcare that will be safe for both of us, including our now vulnerable son. We are still paying for both nursery places, even though they won’t be going, because the nursery waiting lists are too long. As parents and health care workers, we are not coping well.
We’ve used six or seven weeks of total PTO so far since this happened in November. This was also difficult, with my wife coming off maternity leave. Her maternity leave has been mostly unpaid, so we were going three months without her pay. I have no paternity leave.
I am very passionate about what I do and I love being able to help people when they are at their worst in the ICU. It’s been hard having to put all of that aside to prioritize just being a parent right now.
Adriana from Warwick, Rhode Island (She asked that her last name not be used)
The only reason I only waited two hours in the ER is because my son wasn’t breathing. Everyone rushed to take care of him. His oxygen levels were at 73. My youngest caught RSV at 7 weeks old.
My spirit left my body when I was in the hospital. I saw that there was a respiratory therapist, a pediatrician and two nurses, who laid my baby down and began to suck out all the mucus because he was so suffocated, he couldn’t breathe. They put him on oxygen.
I couldn’t believe how lucky we were that he responded to treatment as quickly as he did.
Now, I always carry a small oximeter with me. If he chokes or something, I put it on his finger. This is part of my diaper bag.
Between my son’s overnight hospital stay and two children’s deductibles and co-pays, we are $3,000 in debt, just from September to date. He was only given two doses of Tylenol at the hospital and that was almost $300.
Every time I call the pediatrician’s office, they pretty much check on us over the phone to see if the kid is sick enough to warrant a visit because of his stroke. I have been calling over and over for a few minutes just to get through. When you enter the office, you can see that everyone is very tired.
I think anything that has to do with children lately in the country is being overlooked. There is still a lack of formula. Many parents like me, we are still struggling to find the right formula. I drive across Rhode Island to find it and I’m lucky if I can get two cans. My baby is allergic to cow’s milk protein, so it’s not like I can get him any formula.
We usually go home for the holidays – I’m from Puerto Rico. But this year we just stayed home. It was a problem for my oldest because he is used to spending the holidays with his grandparents.
Mahbubur Rahman of Bonney Lake, Washington
In the past three months, we’ve had five colds, four ear infections, visited urgent care 10 times, and the ER four times, once when my child was sick with RSV. In the last two years, my child caught a cold only once.
This is our first child. He is a Covid child – he is not exposed anywhere because we have stayed at home for the last two years. When we started sending him to preschool, that’s when it started happening, all the things coming together: face the fear of Covid, viruses like the flu and then, RSV.
My child had a febrile seizure. His temperature can’t go over 102 and we have to constantly use Tylenol and ibuprofen just to control it. This is happening like every other week. We prepared our car with emergency things in case we have to stay at the hospital. We always pack our bag and put it in our car – like it’s still there.
I work from home and my wife doesn’t work. However, we feel like we are exhausted. In the last two months, I think I’ve enjoyed 50% of the work I usually do. When my son and wife had RSV, my manager actually told me to manage my time whenever I could work, and it doesn’t have to be 9 to 5.
For the holidays, we had a plan to go back to our country, Bangladesh, but we had to cancel the trip. We did not visit our house for the last three years. I did it in 2019 before Covid and never went back because my wife was pregnant and then my baby was born.
Hopefully this will go away and everything will be better this year. But the fear and the emotions, I think, will not go away very soon.
Stephanie Archinas-Murphin of Lakewood, California
My 3-year-old daughter started preschool in September, and she probably got three viruses – RSV, rhinovirus, and pneumonia – all at the same time. She spent four days in the hospital and it was hell to watch her go through.
It is very sad for her to go out and experience the world. And now all these things are happening when she gets sick. We want to have a different experience for him.
We have almost everything. My oldest daughter got the flu, and so did my husband and I. We have been on this endless journey since October.
When my youngest was sick, she had to be out for three weeks. My husband was away for two weeks just so he could take care of her. But when we came down with the flu after Thanksgiving, my husband didn’t have any vacation time left. I have a private practice and don’t get PTO, but I had to take the load and cancel my clients. This was a drag on our income because I didn’t have any payments. Thankfully, I have some savings so that helped a lot.
When I was low on Motrin and my daughter Morgan had the flu, I happened to post it on Instagram. My relative asked me if I wanted some and even dropped off the Motrin for me and drove nearly 40 miles away. It was so exciting to know that there are people out there looking out for me.
I’m ready to take it one day at a time. I don’t want to overwhelm myself. I won’t stop planning or going out, but I’m aware that things can change.