Editor’s Note: Ben Tinker is the executive producer of CNN Health. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
When my husband and I were counting down the days to the birth of our son last year, one of my best friends shared this quote with me: “Making the decision to have a child – it’s momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”
Two weeks ago, I watched as my heart lay helpless in a pediatric ICU bed, hooked up to a tangled array of wires and tubes and lifesaving machinery – cared for around the clock by a team of dozens of doctors, nurses and respiratory therapists.
As the executive producer of CNN Health, I have been responsible for covering – along with my incredible team – every development, big and small, in the coronavirus pandemic over the last year and a half. That includes, of course, all the latest news regarding infections, vaccines and masks, but also the secondary ramifications of Covid-19, such as kids falling behind on routine vaccinations, the mental health impact of remote school and work, as well as a vicious resurgence of respiratory viruses as children and adults emerge from their Covid bubbles.
Back in June, we reported on a spike in cases of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) across the South. “RSV is a common respiratory virus that usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms … but RSV can be serious, especially for infants and older adults,” according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That same week, we also reported why the upcoming flu season might be more severe.
Even as these other common respiratory illnesses skyrocket, we are again averaging more than 150,000 new Covid-19 cases every day in the United States. More than 95,000 Americans are currently hospitalized with Covid-19 – nearly all of whom are unvaccinated.
Covid-19 hospitalization rates among children and adults under age 50 are now the highest they’ve ever been. And we still don’t have a Covid-19 vaccine for children younger than 12.
What that means: It’s up to responsible adults and adolescents to get vaccinated against Covid-19 to protect this country’s children – to slow the spread of coronavirus, keep in-person learning possible and reserve hospital beds for those who unexpectedly need them by no fault of their own.
This is why I’m sharing my family’s story – as a call to action for everyone to make the important decisions that allow us to maintain a safety net that any of us might need at any time.
You probably remember last winter, preeminent health experts worried about a “double whammy” of Covid-19 and flu resulting in the country’s hospitals being overwhelmed. But while many hospitals certainly exceeded capacity (and health care workers were run ragged – physically, mentally and emotionally), the double whammy never bore out. Why? Stay-at-home orders and mask wearing rendered flu virtually non-existent last winter. But this winter, with everyone back out and about, I’m worried we aren’t ready.
The warning signs
Like many children, my son spent most of the last year at home. But once Covid-19 vaccines became widely available and it seemed like the country was getting a grip on the pandemic a few months ago, we decided to enroll him in daycare. He’s 16 months old now, and we worried about him missing out on learning in a structured setting, and not having the chance to socialize with other kids. We did our research, toured a few options, and ultimately enrolled him at a daycare with substantive Covid-19 mitigation measures in place – not to mention a great curriculum.
Since he started in June, little man has been beset by constant “daycare crud” – as one of my colleagues calls it – that many children experience when they first start school. A runny nose, a little cough, an ear infection; some steamy showers, infant ibuprofen, antibiotic prescriptions; we all move on.
Indeed, our son did contract RSV his first month at school and recovered just fine. Then three Saturdays ago, he started acting a little funny – nothing too concerning, he just wasn’t himself. We were scheduled to leave town on a family vacation the next day, so I took him to the doctor to get checked out before we left. Diagnosis: Probably another ear infection. The pediatrician told us to keep an eye on his symptoms over the next day or two and wrote a prescription for us to fill while we were out of town if we needed it.
But Sunday morning, little man barely touched his breakfast – odd for a kid who usually eats such an unbelievable amount of food that we wonder where in his body it goes. He was fussy, tired, wanted to cuddle during the daytime – all out of the ordinary. We kept packing the car to leave, hoping he’d sleep it off on the road, but as we pulled out of the driveway – literally, before we got to the end of our street – he threw up, so we turned around and came home.
We decided to put him down for a nap, see how he was acting when he got up, and then reevaluate whether or not to hit the road again. When I woke him up, his breathing really concerned me – he was taking short, shallow breaths. When I went to change his diaper, rather than seeing his belly expand and contract with each breath, it looked like he was sucking in beneath his ribs. I knew from talking to his pediatrician when he was sick with RSV that this was a telltale sign of respiratory distress in children.
So, we got back in the car and drove straight to the emergency room at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.
Cause for concern
Luckily, we didn’t have to wait too long to be seen. And as soon as he was evaluated, the sense of urgency escalated even more. Thank God it did. By the time we got back to a room in the ER, little man’s heart was beating more than 180 beats per minutes (normal for his age is 80-130 BPMs) and he was taking close to 60 breaths per minute (normal for his age is 20-30 breaths per minute). Most concerning: His blood oxygen level was dipping into the low 80s (good is 95% and above; anything below 90% is concerning).