What If Your Kid Brings COVID-19 Home? Here's How These Families Dealt With It

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A parent and a child walk on a sidewalk, facing away from the camera. The parent is wearing a red blouse with black and white stripes and the child is wearing a baseball cap and carries a green backpack.
Stephanie Chenard holds hands with her son Desmond, 8, as they walk to his school in Alameda on Aug. 17, 2021. Chenard shared with KQED how she felt when she heard earlier this month that four COVID-19 cases were reported in four different schools of the Oakland Unified School District. “It’s already started,” she said through a text message. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

This story has been updated.

“We were so careful,” said Alysha Johnson, a resident of Discovery Bay in Contra Costa County. “I'm a germaphobe. When this whole thing happened, we didn't leave the house for six months.”

Johnson was crushed when her toddler, River, caught COVID-19 at a summer play group in late July.

“It was a pretty big deal how sick he got,” said Johnson. “It wasn't just a little sniffle.”

Her 2-year-old suffered a sore throat, a cough and a fever of 104 degrees. The bout lasted more than a week and sickened Johnson, her sister and her boyfriend — all of whom were vaccinated.

A parent carries a baby in one hand and a baby bottle in the other. The parent is sitting on a big, brown couch in the living room of their house.
Alysha Johnson holds her son River while giving him a bottle in the family's home in Discovery Bay in Contra Costa County on Aug. 16, 2021. When they and their family tested positive for COVID-19, they quarantined together in the house. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“It felt like a really bad sinus cold,” Johnson said. “I felt exhausted. I lost my sense of taste and smell. That was the most bizarre sensation.”

Johnson is relieved she had her shots protecting her against a more severe case of COVID-19. But the fact that kids are transmitting the coronavirus to family members is unnerving many parents as children head back to school, especially as a coronavirus vaccine for kids under 12 is not yet available.

During the first week of school, 58 students and 10 staff members tested positive in Oakland Unified School District schools. The tallies are much higher in other parts of the country. Last week, more than 3,000 students and staff had to quarantine in Florida’s Brevard Public Schools. And in Hawaii, many schools are pulling the plug and returning to remote learning.

A parent carries their small child in their arms. Both have their bathing suits on and the child wears inflatable lifesavers as both are in the pool. Both are looking up at the sky. Behind them is a backyard and palm trees.
Alysha Johnson holds her son River on Aug. 16, 2021, at their home in Discovery Bay. When River contracted COVID-19 during the summer, his body temperature rose to 104 degrees. “It was a pretty big deal how sick he got,” said Johnson. “It wasn't just a little sniffle.” (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Nationwide about 121,000 children tested positive for the virus from August 5 to 12, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children's Hospital Association. That's a 23% increase over the prior week.

“Time and time again we’re seeing kids return to school and then come home either after an exposure or sick themselves,” said Dr. Nicole Braxley, an emergency medicine physician at Mercy San Juan Medical Center in Carmichael. “The virus sheds for a couple of days before the patient has symptoms. Entire families are suddenly exposed.”

Stephanie Chenard says goodbye to her son, Desmond, before he goes into his school in Alameda on Aug. 17, 2021. In July, Desmond tested positive for COVID-19. While Desmond's case was mild and he quickly recovered, this experience has left the family wary of possible infections at school. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

'The longest few days of my life'

Stephanie Chenard’s 8-year-old son Desmond started third grade in Alameda this Tuesday. That evening after her son returned from his first day of classes, she received an email. The district reported four positive COVID-19 cases in four different schools.

“It’s already started,” Chenard texted KQED after receiving the email, including a tearful emoji in her message.

She knows firsthand how much a mild pediatric case can upend family life. About a month ago Desmond started to lose his appetite. He quickly developed a fever. Chenard grimaced when he tested positive for COVID-19. The news devastated her son.

“He just burst out into tears,” she said.

The family canceled a long-awaited summer trip to Lake Tahoe. Instead they quarantined at home.

Chenard, a 49-year-old college administrator, started making calls. She notified her son’s summer camp. They suspended all activity. She alerted the public swimming pool. She fretted about whether to notify the organizers of a summer music festival. The hardest call was to a friend who had just had an organ transplant.

“The exposure felt like a moral failing,” said Chenard.

Fortunately Chenard’s son’s case was mild. His fever broke the same day it started.

“Desmond was only sick for eight hours, but I spent 45 hours on notifications alone,” she said.

The family’s quarantine also required both parents to juggle work and child care. Fortunately neither parent caught the virus. Chenard feels grateful she and her husband are vaccinated.

Some families are not so lucky.

Jace Garcia caught COVID-19 playing soccer with a friend in Sacramento earlier this month. The virus struck the 11-year-old in the middle of the night. Jace woke up vomiting.

He curled up in the bathroom around the toilet. Body aches racked his slim calves, feet, chest and head.

“Everything was just squeezing that part of the body towards the bone,” said Jace.

A parent and a child take a selfie. Both are smiling and wear Oakland A's gear.
Rico Garcia, left, and Jace Garcia attend an Oakland A's game before the start of the pandemic. In August of this year, both father and son contracted COVID-19. “As a parent, you feel helpless,” said Garcia. (Courtesy of Rico Garcia)

His fever spiked around 104 degrees. He shivered under a pile of blankets. Even playing video games did not offer relief.

“Every time I would click down, I would get a tingling sensation in my hand,” said Jace. He tossed the controllers aside. “I felt dizzy.”
The only advice doctors offered was to try to stay hydrated.

“As a parent, you feel helpless,” said Rico Garcia, Jace’s dad. “It was like the longest few days of my life.”

He worried he might contract the virus. Each morning he anxiously took a rapid test. He hoped his vaccine would offer protection, but on the fourth morning Rico tested positive. Within 24 hours the symptoms set in.

“It felt like a terrible head cold,” said Garcia. “My brain was foggy. I couldn't think straight.”

Then he lost his voice. He called in sick to the radio station where he’s a DJ. Then one morning at breakfast, things got weird.

“My first sip of coffee was amazing,” Garcia said. “My ninth and tenth sip tasted like hot water. In the snap of a finger my sense of taste and smell was gone. I went as far as to cut a lime open and bite into it and tasted nothing.”

Eventually Garcia’s ex-wife also caught the virus from their son. A teacher, she is currently quarantining. Jace is still fighting a lingering cough and congestion. He’s also missing the first 10 days of sixth grade.

Epidemiologists say breakthrough cases are on the rise all around the U.S., though estimates vary widely because tallies depend on community masking, testing availability and the level of virus circulating regionally.

“Symptoms can be absent or so mild in the vaccinated, many dismiss this as a cold or seasonal allergies,” Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, a UCSF professor and infectious disease specialist explains in an email. “In other words, you don’t know what you don't know.”

An internal presentation from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention estimates about 35,000 people a week contract a symptomatic breakthrough infection in the U.S. In the week leading up to July 24, about 384,000 people across the country tested positive for COVID-19, which indicates about 9% of new cases were breakthrough infections.

Chin-Hong says this is likely an underestimate of the true total, but shouldn’t undermine the vaccines’ effectiveness in peoples’ minds.

“At the end of the day, one can say why focus on breakthrough infections, as the vaccines are really meant to prevent people getting serious disease and dying -- which they are still spectacular at,” he says.


Weighing the risks

Until this summer, doctors said it was unusual for kids to pass the virus to a parent, especially someone who was vaccinated. But that’s changing as the delta variant takes hold. The new strain appears to be twice as contagious as the original.

It’s still rare for a child to experience a severe case or hospitalization or to die from the coronavirus. In states where data is available, fewer than 2% of all pediatric COVID-19 cases required hospitalization and fewer than 0.03% are fatal.

Yet, as schools open and more students test positive, parents and teachers find themselves trying to weigh the risks. Mental health experts learned the lockdown was hard on all of us, especially children — a fact underscored by the spike in emergency room visits among kids for mental health issues last year.

“Young people experienced more depression and anxiety because of the level of isolation,” said Saun-Toy Trotter, a psychotherapist and a program manager at UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital in Oakland. She stresses screens cannot replace in-person interaction.

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“One element of their well-being is being with peers, learning, stretching, struggling, growing and connecting.”

Trotter recommends parents ask doctors and teachers lots of questions to weigh the risks. Schools can mitigate transmission through masks, vaccines and ventilation. Sometimes it’s as easy as opening both a window and a door to create a cross-breeze.

Before her son started middle school last week, Trotter sent a few emails to school administrators. The responses helped ease her mind. She says in-person learning is the right place for her son, at least for now. She’s watching the data closely.