My Unvaccinated 4 Year Old Got Omicron

She's spent half her life in a pandemic.

My Unvaccinated 4 Year Old Got Omicron

The first fever always comes at night.

I used to think this was something that was oddly true in our home, but couldn’t possibly be true outside of it. Over the years, I’d gotten used to it. It was just some quirk. My kids couldn’t figure out how to start a fever during daylight hours. Weird but not to something worth extrapolating to other homes.

Except it kind of is. Of course, fevers can start any time of day. But they are more likely to start at night, and they’re more likely to be worse at night. It’s a circadian rhythm thing. The circadian rhythm is the internal mechanism that regulates our sleep-wake cycle. The processes that make up this rhythm often respond to light and darkness. I used to imagine this cycle as one big clock, each part of my body functioning as a mechanism within it to help it tick. But our bodies are made up of tons of tiny circadian clocks, each ticking on their own at the same time.

Even our cells have their own circadian clocks. Our immune system is made of lots of different cells. At night, their circadian rhythm tells them it’s time to get work. A lot of the work involves inflammation which causes things like chills, headaches and fevers.

Like the one Brontë woke up with on Sunday, January 2. I heard her crying in my sleep. That’s kind of how exhausted parenthood works sometimes. You hear a cry in a dream and then you’re halfway across the hall before you’ve woken up. I was awake by the time I got to her bed. She was wide-eyed and gasping. She’d had a bad dream. “With monsters, mommy. But the worst kind. They were killing people! I never seed people killed before!”

I didn’t know she was sick until I touched her. I’ve become good at touching fevers and knowing them. I can guess the temperature within a half a degree. A fever is over 101.5 degrees if I can still feel it in my right palm when I pull my hand away. The longer it stays in my hand, the higher it is. The last fever my dad had came at night. I felt it in my palm until the next morning. 104.5.  Brontë’s fever lingered. 102, I bet.

I took her temperature after I settled her in my bed. 102. She and I stayed up all night. Fevers make kids talk. Or at least they make my kids talk. Their eyes get all wide, like they’ve just realized everything can be on the record. Everything should be on the record. And I am the record keeper. She told me about her favorite Bluey episode, the boy who keeps saying “butts” at school and the monsters.

I pulled my laptop up on the bed, turned on Lilo and Stitch. Look! You love Stitch. That’s a good monster! She told me Stitch is pretend, not like the monsters she’d seen in her dream. I couldn’t convince her those monsters only lived in her head. I get it. I still think lots of the things in my head are real too. So I asked her to tell me more about the kid who’s always saying "butts."

Brontë is four. She cannot be vaccinated against Covid-19 yet. While we cuddled, I wondered if she’d finally gotten this damn virus we’d spent half her life avoiding. The ibuprofen and Tylenol brought her fever down one degree. But my worry was rising. I didn’t know what to expect.

My Unvaccinated 4 Year Old Got Omicron
Brontë is four. She's spent half her life in a pandemic. 

I’ve been treated to graphic after graphic depicting how the disease moves through the vaccinated and unvaccinated adult. I can tell you exactly how intubation works after having it explained to me about a million times in every publication, on every platform. This is a particularly triggering experience as someone who lost an intubated parent. People try to convince others to get vaccinated by describing intubation as a kind of torture. Sometimes they just meme it. "Oh, you don't want to get a shot? Well, then you're going to get this!" And then there's an image of a person intubated. It's always the most unsettling image of the procedure they could find.

As they portray intubation as a kind of punishment, do they think about the people who've had to choose intubation for family members?

As they portray intubation as a kind of punishment, do they think about the people who've had to choose intubation for family members? The rhetoric and images take me again and again to my dad’s ICU bed, to that tube down his throat, with renewed horror, and now also guilt. I wonder if there's a better way to describe the invasive nature of intubation. I wonder if we'd use it even if we found it.

After all these years (yes, years), I have no idea how Covid-19 moves through a child. There’s just been vague hand waving in their direction, as I am assured they’ll be okay. Kids are so resilient, after all!  The disease is “mild” in children under five. And often “asymptomatic.” Except for when it leads to long covid or death. Well, and especially unless the child has an underlying health condition. Lots of children who cannot get vaccinations have health conditions. Lots of kids who can get vaccinated have health conditions.

Health changes, which is why it requires care

I don’t know if my four year old has an underlying health condition - that’s kind of the thing about health. Health changes, which is why it requires care. Often our health changes without notifying us. That’s why people die of curable cancers. They didn’t know they were sick until it was too late.

Being humane is the radical belief that people with health conditions deserve to live, too.

But even if she doesn’t have an undiagnosed health issue, I’d worry about her. And about all the kids just like her, who also have asthma or some other “underlying health condition.” I guess I never thought I’d have to explain this but in case there is any doubt: Being humane is the radical belief that people with health conditions deserve to live too.

I’ve written about kids, Covid and vaccines before. It’s one of my most read newsletters. If you’d like to know how I feel about public health, Covid 19, vaccinations and disinformation, please read it. I still get emails from people who decided to get their first shot after reading it. I still get emails from people who think I am a deep state shill for writing it. The former outweighs the latter.

Two days into her illness, Brontë tested positive for Covid 19. By then four of the five of us were sick too. Riley probably had Covid too, but he never displayed symptoms. And we never used any of our precious, increasingly rare at-home tests to find out if he did. He just quarantined right along with us.

We started our 10-day quarantine on that first Sunday before Brontë even had her fever. She said she had a headache Sunday morning. I canceled a Sunday family dinner just in case. I thought I was being overly cautious. And I knew that my caution was not ENTIRELY altruistic. I felt too tired to make dinner for everyone. Look at me, pulling the Covid card. Now I am so glad that I did.

This is a little breadcrumb cast by one tired parent in a long line of tired parents.

For now, I am just going to make a record of what Covid-19 looked like when it moved through my family, the unvaccinated and vaccinated. Due the nature of the breakthrough cases in our house, I am assuming we had the Omicron variant. This is a little breadcrumb cast by one tired parent in a long line of tired parents. Maybe at some point, that trail of breadcrumbs will lead to something. Even if it's just each other.

We’ll take it in order of falling ill, first to last.  

Household ages: 4, 12, 10, 36, 37

Vaccination status: 4 yo, not vaccinated. 12 yo, vaccinated over the summer. 10 yo, vaccinated in November. 36 yo, vaccinated and boosted in November. 37 yo, vaccinated and boosted in November.

4 year old: Headache on Sunday morning, January 2. No other symptoms. She woke up with 102 degree fever on Sunday night. It remained around 101 with medication through the rest of the night and early Monday morning. With medication, her fever stayed around 99/100 during Monday’s daylight hours. With medication, it moved between 101 and 102 on Monday night/early Tuesday morning. No fever after Tuesday. She was sick through Thursday. The symptoms of the illness came and went the entire time. She complained of intense leg pain, intense head pain, and “both sides hurt.” I think she meant her ribs. Her breathing was somewhat labored the first 24 hours, but seemed fine afterwards. She had no appetite. When I could get her to eat or drink something, she’d push it away after the first bite declaring “I don’t like it.” The only thing she’d eat was yogurt. She was exhausted and fell asleep on me several times a day, every day. It’s hard for me to stress how rare that is, even when she is ill. By far, Brontë was the sickest of all of us.

12 year old: Mentioned a “thick feeling throat” Sunday evening. She thought she was dehydrated. She woke up Monday morning with what she described as a “thick, scratchy but not painful” throat. At this point, I assumed she had Covid too. When she tested on Tuesday, we saw that she did! Her odd throat stuff came and went until Friday, January 7. She felt uncommonly tired Sunday to Sunday. No other symptoms.

10 year old: Woke up with a fever on Tuesday night. 101 degrees, even with medication, all night long. She, like her little fevered sister, also talked all night long. Not a symptom of Omicron, just a symptom of being my kid. She had intense leg pain and head pain from 11pm Tuesday night to Wednesday afternoon. The fever left her Wednesday morning and did not return. She was tired through Thursday. Symptom free by Friday.

36 year old: I felt uncomfortable all day Tuesday and Wednesday. My throat, like my 12 year old’s, felt oddly scratchy but not raw or painful. My fever woke up Wednesday night. It was accompanied by a whole abdomen phenomenon that I can only describe as a vise’s jaws screwing open inside of me instead of being screwed together. I know that makes so little sense, but even as the pain was happening I thought, “There’s no logical way to describe this!” It felt like I would be thrust apart, not from expanding air, but from an expanding solid. Maybe a better description is a balloon being filled with iron inside of me? But the vise description really gets the steadily tightening pain across. It was incredibly difficult to breathe, but in a way I've never experienced. I was exhausted the next day, more from the pain of the night before than anything else. Fever did not return after Wednesday. Chills on and off through the following weekend. Also developed a new bone-deep exhaustion Friday morning through Monday evening. I could not breathe sleeping on my back until last night, January 11. Still breathe better sleeping on my stomach.

37 year old: No symptoms. “Maybe a headache on Wednesday, but that could have also been from lack of sleep caring for the kids."

We had the ability to quarantine for the full ten days because Riley, my husband, works remotely and I am a freelance writer. A ten day quarantine did not impact our ability to pay our bills or endanger our jobs. This is not a reality most Americans live in. When we got sick, we had enough food in the house for about five days if we scrimped and cooked imaginatively. Those things are hard to do while sick, caretaking and working remotely.

My Unvaccinated 4 Year Old Got Omicron
Japanese government page, poor translation courtesy of google translate 

If we lived in Japan, the government would have shipped us easy to make food so we could eat while quarantined. This food package would have cared for us while also protecting people outside of our home. Funny how care always moves both ways like that. We do not live in Japan. We do live in a gig economy. We were able to order groceries for door-step delivery. We tipped very well while knowing our tips did not keep the shopper safe from omicron while they shopped for us. Who will deliver food to the person who delivered our groceries when they get sick?

Today is January 12. As of today, we're all negative. Viola tested positive until yesterday.

I still can’t get Brontë to eat anything but yogurt. A new problem as she is an adventurous, eager eater. It’s not her appetite. She’s hungry again. So hungry! But she’ll take a bite of a formerly favorite food and push it away, “This isn’t my favorite anymore." I think she can’t taste them. That maybe her sense of smell isn’t working.

When I try to ask her what they taste like, or if they taste, I realize how confusing those questions are for a four year old. She’s got no words to articulate what she is or isn’t experiencing. And precious few adult experts seem anxious to give me the words she can’t. Why study a novel disease in children when only some of them die from it, I guess. It's frustrating. But we also live in a country where people ask the same question about getting vaccinated. So it's not surprising.

I give her more yogurt, grateful she’s better and eating something.

I’m having a hard time falling asleep at night. Night is when my anxiety wakes up, maybe it's on the circadian rhythm too. Why won’t Brontë eat other foods? What if her senses aren’t working right? How will I know that’s what’s happening? What else might be going on that she just can’t find the words to explain?

I tell myself that the monsters in my head, the ones grown thick and calloused with worry, aren’t real. And then I try to think of something happy so I can sleep, like Brontë telling me about the kid in her class who keeps saying “butts.”