With children back in 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 which often is most severe in young children and older adults, hit early and cases started rising quickly. Cases of influenza started rising soon after, all while Covid-19 continued to spread, with new variants surfacing.
The CDC estimates:
- At least 24 million illnesses and 16,000 deaths have occurred due to the flu 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 latest week of complete data – about eight times higher than the overall hospitalization rate.
CNN spoke to parents across the country about the challenges this flu season. They described canceling Christmas, missing trips home to see family and pulling their children out of daycare 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.
‘Making decisions on which ball to drop’
Michaela Riley from Issaquah, Washington
I am a single mom living in the suburbs of Seattle. I work for one of the major corporations here. On the outside, I look successful. I have senior in my title, I consistently get promotions and recognition. On the inside, I am breaking from stress related to illness, never getting a real vacation and now the inability to pay for my basic needs.
I had to work through the holidays, and I had my kids. My parents were going to watch them. Then they got norovirus, which also canceled Christmas. Then my daughter’s father got some horrible flu, so my backup plan for Christmas got canceled. We still hadn’t celebrated Christmas until January 7 because everyone was healing.
I have 4-year-old and 11-year-old daughters. Basically, all 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, trying time.
As a single parent, I’ve always been focused on keeping all the balls in the air. But now it is so much harder that what I’m actually doing is making decisions on which ball to drop, just to keep myself going.
I have used every single vacation day on either my children being sick, me being sick or me having to take one mental health day because I was totally overwhelmed since the beginning of quarantine. I was supposed to go camping last year with the family. I got Covid for the fourth time and had to cancel. I’m going a little bonkers.
The group I work with has been so supportive of me and understanding of my situation. They honestly helped me during the worst times.
I have this hashtag for 2023: #BeFree23. Instead of focusing on the struggle, I focus on what’s working in my life. I feel better about 2023. I don’t think anything’s going to change, but changing my mindset is the one thing I have control over.
‘As parents and health care workers, we are not coping well’
Jason Hecht from 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 on the health care worker side with the massive demands of this season but also struggling far more at home.
The last month or two have probably been the most mentally and emotionally taxing I’ve ever had in my life. We have a 2-year-old and a 3-month-old. It was our youngest who was 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 an issue in the world. To see him so quickly knocked down and be to the point of almost dying in the intensive care unit was very sobering for my wife and I. Seeing your baby that sick – that part alone has been very emotionally draining.
I was all too aware of how severe his illness was. It was difficult to play the role of father, husband and caretaker because the pull was so strong to go into health care provider mode.
We had to completely upend our life, pull both kids out of daycare. We’re still struggling to find a reliable source of child care that’s going to be safe for both of them, including our now vulnerable son. We’re still paying for both kids’ daycare spots, even though they aren’t going, because daycare waitlists are so long. As parents and health care workers, we are not coping well.
We’ve used six or seven weeks of PTO total so far since this happened in November. This was difficult, too, with my wife coming off maternity leave. Her maternity leave has been mostly unpaid, so that was already three months we were going without her paycheck. I don’t have any paternity leave.
I am very passionate about what I do, and I love being able to help people when they’re at their worst in the ICU. It’s been difficult to have to put all that aside to prioritize only being a parent right now.
‘My soul left my body’
Adriana from Warwick, Rhode Island (She asked that her last name not be used)
The only reason I waited only two hours in the ER is because my son stopped breathing. Everyone rushed to take care of him. His oxygen levels were at 73. My youngest caught RSV at 7 weeks old.
My soul left my body when I was in the hospital. I saw there was a respiratory therapist, a pediatrician and two nurses, that they lay down my baby and they started suctioning all the mucus because he was so stuffy, he couldn’t breathe. They put him on oxygen.
I couldn’t believe how lucky we were that he responded to the treatment as fast as he did.
Now, I always carry a little oximeter with me. If he gets stuffy or anything like that, I put that on his finger. That’s part of my diaper bag.
Between my son being hospitalized for one night and the two kids’ deductibles and co-payments, we are $3,000 in debt, just from September until today. He was given just two doses of Tylenol at the hospital and that was almost $300.
Every time I call the pediatrician’s office, they pretty much triage us over the phone to see if the child is sick enough to grant a visit because of how slammed they are. I have been constantly redialing for several minutes just to get through. When you go into the office, you can see they’re all very tired.
I think that anything that has to do with kids lately in the country is being overlooked. There’s still the formula shortage. A lot of parents like me, we’re still struggling to find the right formula. I drive all around Rhode Island to find it, and I’m lucky if I can get two cans. My baby is allergic to cow milk protein, so it’s not like I can just get him any formula.
We usually fly back home for the holidays – I’m from Puerto Rico. But this year we just stayed home. It was a bummer for my oldest because he’s used to spending the holidays with the grandparents.
‘We did not visit our home (country) the last three years’
Mahbubur Rahman from Bonney Lake, Washington
In the last three months, we got five colds, four ear infections, visited urgent care 10 times and the emergency room four times, once while my kid was sick with RSV. In the last two years, my child had a cold only once.
This is our first child. He’s a Covid child – he’s not exposed to anywhere because we stayed at home for the last two years. When we started sending him to preschool then this started happening, all things are coming together: face the fear of Covid, viruses like the flu and then, RSV.
My child had a febrile seizure. His temperature cannot go past 102 and we need to continuously use Tylenol and ibuprofen just to control it. This is happening like every other week. We prepared our car with emergency things for if we need to stay at the hospital. We always pack our bag and put it in our car – like it still is there.
I am working from home and my wife is not working. Still, we feel like we are exhausted. In the last two months, I think I did like 50% of the work that I usually do. When my son and wife had RSV, my manager actually just told me to manage time whenever I can work, and it does not need to be 9 to 5.
For the holidays, we had a plan to go back our country, Bangladesh, but we had to cancel the trip. We did not visit our home the last three years. I did in 2019 before Covid and never went back because my wife was pregnant and then my child was born.
I hope that this will go away, and everything will be better this year. But the fear and the emotions, I think will not go away pretty soon.
‘We’ve been on this never-ending journey since October’
Stephanie Archinas-Murphin from Lakewood, California
My 3-year-old daughter started preschool in September and sure enough she got three viruses – RSV, rhinovirus and pneumonia – all at the same time. She spent four days at the hospital, and it was hell watching her going through it.
It’s very heartbreaking to just have her come out and experience the world. And now all these things are happening with her getting sick. We want to have a different experience for her.
We pretty much got everything. My older daughter got the flu, so did my husband and myself. We’ve been on this never-ending journey since October.
When my youngest was ill, she had to be out for three weeks. My husband was out for two weeks just to be able to take care of her. But when we got hit by the flu after Thanksgiving, my husband didn’t have any time off left. I have a private practice and don’t get PTO, but I had to take the brunt and cancel my clients. That was a dent in our income because I didn’t have any pay. 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 if I want some and even dropped off Motrin for me and drove from almost 40 miles away. It was so heartwarming to know that there are people out there who are looking out for me.
I’m all about taking it one day at a time. I don’t want to overwhelm myself. I’m not going to stop planning or going out, but I’m being mindful that things may change.