After 20 days trapped at home together, during which time my children started referring to their Pedialyte ice pops as “ice lollies” because they’d watched 4,000 episodes of “Peppa Pig,” my son at last returned to day care. He survived for two days before getting sick again. This time, he was afflicted by red welts that spread quickly and sent him to urgent medical care right before midnight. Over three weeks, we’d gone from bad to worse to biblical.
Wasn’t this year supposed to be better? Or was that something we just told ourselves as our bodies stumbled toward the faded mirage of normalcy?) Instead, the onslaught of viruses this fall has been so monstrous and relentless that it seems like every parent I know — friends, colleagues, neighbors, Everyone — has a story To tell. These stories are not good. These stories are told in a tired-yet-frantic voice and feature specific numbers. For example, they include the exact degree of fever, missed school days, lost work days, frequency of visits to the pediatrician, urgent care, or emergency room.
“I have a 5-year-old and an 8-year-old who started kindergarten and third grade, respectively, the first week of September,” says Alexis McGrath of Parsippany, N.J., who described her family’s experience by email. “Since then, there literally hasn’t been a single week when at least two of us haven’t been home sick.” So far, the siege has spanned three upper-respiratory infections, numerous high fevers, relentless congestion and two confirmed cases of pinkeye, she says. “I. AM. SO. TIRED.”
Kate Kearns wrote to me from her bed, where she was slogging through day seven of the flu: “My 3-year-old is napping next to me, radiating heat with a temp of 102 and moaning softly,” she says. “We’ve only had two or three weeks since the beginning of September where both kids were actually in school/preschool for the entire week.”
“Last week was Langston’s first full week of school in the month of November,” says Jonathan Freeman-Coppadge, who lives in Delaware with his husband and their 7-year-old son, who came home from school with the flu a few weeks ago. “It took 24 hours and three pharmacies to find his antibiotic.”
“I’ve been in the office maybe 10 times in the last two months — only twice in November,” Kelly Trout of McLean, Va., told me. The sickest part of her family is the 4-year-old daughter and the 2-year-old son. Her daughter returned to school with a fever of 102 degrees and she was confirmed as having the flu. Trout says she felt resigned: “I’m pretty sure we all have it.”
What is the current situation? If, like me, you’ve scoured the internet through bloodshot eyeballs while listening to your child’s chest-rattling coughs all night, you already know that the available information is neither entirely clear nor particularly reassuring. This year’s “tripledemic” — the dreaded collision of covid, RSV and the flu — is unprecedented in recent history, its origins mysterious, possibly attributed to “immune debt” or “viral interference” or to the way the masses have changed their behavior through the course of the pandemic.
The combination of all the causes has led to a public health crisis that is worse than any other flu season in more than a decade. Hospitals are overrun, antibiotics and fever-reducing medications are in short supply, and parents — who have already been running on fumes for literal years — have been reduced to tears and torrents of curses texted to one another at 3 a.m. when yet another thermometer reading confirms yet another fever. My dear friend and me once exchanged messages about weekend plans. Now our threads look like The End of Days.
After my son started to itch, I took him to see the pediatrician. This would be his fourth visit in three months. The nurse told me, in a vaguely haunted voice: “I have. been doing this for more than 20 years. I have Never, ever seen a fall like this.” This did not make me feel better, exactly, because no one wants to live through the Middle Ages Redux, but it did help me take it less personally — to know that ours was not the only family felled by a ceaseless barrage of plagues, that this wasn’t an indictment of our personal hygiene or a sign that we’d been cursed by a witch.
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Lexa Lemieux, a mother in Bethesda (Md.), told me she also had similar dark thoughts as she was gathering with her family and friends at a lakehouse over Thanksgiving. Her household had recently recovered from covid, but she took her runny-nosed 4-year-old daughter to the pediatrician before the holiday just in case, wanting to be sure she wasn’t a risk to their friend’s infant. All seemed fine at first, but then: “We all started dropping like flies,” Lemieux says. “Everyone was coughing. Many of us were coughing. The baby was screaming throughout the night. One of my friends was unable to attend Thanksgiving dinner. My mother, who had come up to visit us for a few days, fell ill right away. The trip was called Thanksgiving of the Damned. We began to wonder if the house was located at the portal of hell.”
Coping with back-to-back infections is overwhelmingly stressful and exhausting, at best; at worst, especially for parents of medically vulnerable kids or those who don’t have the privilege of a flexible workplace, it’s downright terrifying. Meanwhile, even amid the tripledemic, babies and preschoolers are still beset by the usual repulsive miseries: impetigo; hand, foot and mouth; lice; roseola — a litany of ailments that look and sound like they belong running rampant through a Dickensian orphanage. Add to this mess the horror of not knowing whether you’ll actually be able to get your hands on Children’s Tylenol, Motrin or amoxicillin, and of course parents are coming unglued.
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Kearns points out that the old rules don’t seem to apply: In the time before this, one could usually count on a couple of weeks (or at least DaysA) good health, with no lingering illnesses. It was easy to determine if a child was experiencing a new bug or a persistent cough. “Now it’s constant,” Kearns says. “It is completely [expletive] unhinged.” When Lemieux was crouched in the bathroom, violently ill at the onset of her flu, she says she yelled out loud, to no one: “BUT WE JUST HAD COVID!”
Despite all this chaos, there are still things to do, children to look after, and the ever-present demands of daily living. Parenting means constantly looking for the silver linings, and so far I’ve identified two: 1. Sick kids can be atypically sedate and snuggly, which is sweet if they aren’t Too Disgusting; and 2. If society crumbles, and the resurrection of art and culture depends entirely on the recollections of “Fahrenheit 451”-style wanderers who have committed certain works to memory, I am fully prepared to dictate “Encanto” frame for frame.
Now the winter holidays are fast approaching, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending that everyone start masking again, and people keep telling Lemieux, “At least you had all this before Christmas!” This is intended as optimism, but she hears it as ominous foreshadowing: “I immediately want to knock on wood and light some sage.”
She spoke to me and reminded me of the fact that my sister in law gave me a bunch sage after we had our recent bout of illness. I thought about how my son started coughing this week and then I looked at the sage. Why not?I thought so, and lit it, then waved it about. I then inhaled the smoke and began coughing. I continued to cough. It’s been an hour, and I’m still coughing, but it’s just the sage. It’s the sage, right?