'Children can and do get this virus': How Naperville parents cared for 3-year-old triplets with COVID-19
Maureen Dunne found herself facing the unimaginable when her children became part of a frightening statistic.
In DuPage County, 147 kids younger than 10 have developed COVID-19, accounting for less than 2% of all confirmed cases.
Three of those cases are Dunne's triplets. The College of DuPage trustee and her husband, Brett, braced "for a battle" caring for not one, not two, but three sick toddlers.
Avoiding intimate contact was impossible, but the Naperville parents re-engineered family routines so they wouldn't catch the virus and could nurse their 3-year-olds, Sophia, Sylvie and Alex, back to health.
Dunne shared her experience in hopes of helping other caregivers and as a reminder that children aren't immune to the coronavirus. This is an edited version of a conversation conducted via email.
Q: What happened when you received the results that your children all tested positive on May 6? How are they doing now?
A: One of my biggest fears has been that either my husband or I (or our entire family) would become seriously ill and require hospitalization. If my husband and I got sick, who would take care of our COVID-19 positive children? What if one or more of my children were hospitalized or worse?
When we first realized our predicament, my husband and I looked at each other and acknowledged that this situation would be tremendously, tremendously difficult for our family. But we made a commitment to each other and to ourselves to remain calm and cautiously optimistic. Somehow, we shifted pretty quickly into a "Let's get to work" attitude and started preparing for a battle.
At this point, we have reason to feel optimistic that everyone will beat this virus and end up 100% healthy.
Q: What are the chances of young children catching the virus?
A: According to the CDC, only approximately 1.7% of all people diagnosed with COVID-19 are children under the age of 18.
The likelihood that my household and my triplets would be affected was extremely small. It was also highly unlikely my aunt would contract it (and then spread it to our children), given that she engaged in such limited essential activities and took responsible precautions. She must have been exceptionally unlucky (a statistical outlier) to be at the precise wrong place at the precise wrong time (where/when she was exposed to a large enough viral load for the disease to get traction in her system).
But -- and this is also important -- the risk is clearly not zero. This virus does not discriminate. We are all vulnerable. Children can and do get this virus. When it affects the people you love, believe me, the statistics will be far from mind.
Q: How did you manage their care at home?
A: Our priority was to take good care of our children. We constantly checked their temperatures and analyzed food and fluid intake and output. We gave them a great deal of watered down Pedialyte daily with powdered vitamin C mixed right in.
Our doctors repeatedly reminded us our children would be highly contagious, especially at the outset of symptoms. So, one of the big challenges was protecting ourselves so we could remain healthy enough to care for them -- while trying to normalize the experience for them.
We continued to enjoy our daily dance party, regular story time, pretend play and other routines -- but from about 6 feet away whenever possible. They are toddlers, and so there were still a lot of activities that necessitated close contact (such as diaper changing and baths), and it was also important to continue to comfort them and give hugs.
My husband and I have been an amazing team throughout this process -- while simultaneously being required to social distance from each other, which was exceptionally hard. There was a high chance that one of us would test positive first and end up transmitting the virus to the other.
My husband even slept on an air mattress 6 feet away from our shared bed. We joked that Daddy had become our household pet. Given the seriousness of our circumstances, we needed some comic relief every now and then.
Q: What have doctors advised?
A: Our doctors advised that the entire family wear medical-grade protective masks when coming into contact. We were also advised to wear surgical gloves. Obviously, acquiring high-grade PPE is nearly impossible right now, especially when you need it right away.
We had to be extremely flexible and creative.
We used our vacuum cleaner HEPA filter bags inside cloth face masks after doing research that suggested they were effective at filtering airborne particles. We also used gardening gloves and power-tool protective glasses.
Eventually, we were able to locate medical grade masks (one for each of us) and a small package of surgical gloves. We wore a surgical mask over the higher filtration medical mask in the hopes that our medical masks would last longer than they were designed to.
The doctor also recommended we immediately start consuming high doses of vitamin C, rinse our mouths regularly with Listerine, and avoid taking any Ibuprofen.
Q: Were you tested for COVID-19?
A: I was tested the same day my children were. My test result came back negative and all three of the children tested positive.
At first, my doctor assumed it was a "false negative." The night before my aunt came down with a high fever, we were all playing games together in the nursery. I believe I was standing roughly 4 to 6 feet away from my aunt (who was unknowingly infectious). Thankfully, I remained strong and healthy during the weeks my children were showing symptoms.
Given the heavy daily exposure, it was presumed that, upon retest weeks later, I would likely be COVID-19 positive even though I initially tested negative. However, my retest results also came back negative.
My husband has now been tested three times -- all negative.
Q: How can you minimize exposure as a caregiver?
A: One of the first things we did when we found out that our household was affected was to study as much as we could in a short period. We then went around the entire house and visualized that environment and all of its component features (doorknobs, toys, stairway rails, computer keyboards, light switches, household supplies, drawer handles, faucet knobs, handles of appliances, chair backs, etc.) thinking about where the likely problem spots were in terms of contagion-hosting through frequent touching.
We then developed a regular regimen of disinfecting all of those spots multiple times per day. We created homemade PPE from whatever suitable materials we could immediately get our hands on.
Based on advice from our health care providers, we have been wearing a mask, gloves and glasses. I used tape to seal disposable shower caps over my head as hair can be a vector of transmission. Our doctors also asked that we to try our best to get our triplets excited about wearing masks whenever possible to reduce the likelihood of transmission.
We washed our hands throughout the day constantly. After each period spent in the room caring for our sick children, we had a laborious protocol which always ended with disinfecting our supplies, putting all clothes into the laundry, and taking a hot shower. I have never done so much laundry or taken so many showers in my entire life.
These laborious efforts, at minimum, gave us confidence that we were doing everything we could to provide complete attentive care to our triplets while they were sick without putting ourselves in obvious high-risk danger of infection.
Q: How can parents explain to young children why they have to wear masks and take precautions?
A: We tried to make everything into a game. It helped that they observed Mommy and Daddy wearing masks. They are still at an age where they want to imitate everything we do. We also practiced putting masks on stuffed animals together.
The kids got even more excited about wearing masks when they each realized some of their favorite characters wore masks in some form, such as Ninja Turtle and Batman. It did take some practice to get them to keep their masks on and to not cover their eyes as they were used to playing "peekaboo."
We became more flexible and let the kids draw on the walls of their room to help them express their own emotions during this unusual time. We read stories together, including a book that my good Rotary friend, Mary Onorad, was kind enough to drop off: "Q is for Quarantine."
We sometimes created art together as we drew separately during a conversation about being in quarantine.
Q: How did you console your 3-year-olds?
A: My heart sank when my doctor told me that I needed to distance from my own children whenever possible. I reminded her of the challenges involved given that my triplets are not even yet 3 years old in adjusted age terms (they were born early at 28 weeks).
In terms of social play, at first, I tried to play a lot of games where the "mommy and baby" versions of their favorite stuffed animals would hug and kiss each other. We would dance together and blow bubbles back and forth from 6 feet apart.
At the same time, given their stage of early brain development, it was just not realistic to go several days to weeks without close, affectionate contact. We have always been a very affectionate family. I could not bear the possibility that my children would suddenly feel rejected by me. I had to find creative solutions to meet both their physical and emotional needs while also protecting myself the best I possibly could.
One recommendation was to add more layers of protection and to think of the periods of closer, affectionate contact as shortened intervals in between more "social distance" play. My kids love astronaut characters, so we created a game. I told them we were all pretending to be astronauts in space and that was why we all looked so funny. Then, a friend sent me a white suit to take the game to a whole new level. My kids would hop on the "Mommy space craft express" as we sang songs and imagined we were astronauts on a mission, exploring faraway planets and galaxies.
Q: What was the onset of symptoms like for your children?
A: The first obvious symptom that presented for all three children was nausea and vomiting. This was followed by diarrhea and fever. One of our daughters coughed a lot more than the other two. Our other daughter did not cough much but sneezed a lot. Our son had the highest fever.
Two out of the three kids completely recovered around the same time while the third continued to have lingering symptoms that required close monitoring.
Even after all symptoms resolve, we still need to remain vigilant as a small number of COVID-19 positive children develop PIMS (pediatric inflammatory multisystem syndrome), sometimes a month or more later, from what we have been told.
Q: What's been the most difficult part of this ordeal?
A: Psychological management of fear of the unknown. Our normal everyday existence has been completely upended and replaced by extreme complexity, both logistically and emotionally. For the sake of my family, I had to remain focused on our new daily routine and solving the problems at hand with discipline and hope.
Q: Is there anything else you would like to add?
A: I am a business owner myself and had to temporarily suspend all business activities. COVID-19 has personally affected my family on multiple fronts. Interestingly, this experience has made me less afraid, not more. We are always going to be more terrified of the unknown enemy. COVID-19 has been/is everywhere in my home.
We also feel very fortunate that the virus never escalated to the most severe version for anyone in my family. There were certainly some particularly rough days, but nobody was hospitalized in need of an ICU room. We were able to manage with home care. My aunt still feels tired but has recently been released from self-quarantine. My heart goes out to those families who have not been so lucky.
As we start to reopen as a society, I really hope we can all agree to embrace simple, low-cost, high-impact habitual processes until we have an effective vaccine, so we can learn to navigate the challenges of COVID-19 effectively and beat this thing -- not by hiding in a hole while the world falls apart, and not by pretending it doesn't exist, but by being sensible and systematic, and taking basic high-impact precautions.
Finally, I am also extremely grateful to my "professional family" at Advocate Health and Good Samaritan Hospital where I serve on the Governing Board Council. They were extraordinary in terms of offering support to me and my family. The president of Good Samaritan Hospital, Nancy Tinsley -- despite her hectic schedule doing an amazing job leading the hospital during this crisis -- was always available for me. Many other friends and members of my community also offered support when needed, including organizing grocery shopping and locating masks or gloves. Thousands of people across the globe were saying prayers for my family. The kindness of others was extraordinary.