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As schools open and delta surges, here’s what my family experienced when COVID came calling — so you can prep your own | COMMENTARY

I got COVID-19 last month, despite receiving my second Pfizer shot in April. I got it from my unvaccinated daughter, who got it from her small-group, summer day camp (where they wore masks). She was released from quarantine by the local health department just in time for her 9th birthday and the start of 4th grade last week. I, on the other hand, was released before I was even diagnosed, despite my exposure, simply because I was vaccinated.

As schools in Maryland and across the country resume operation in-person amid the incredibly infectious delta variant of the coronavirus, parents of elementary school children are particularly anxious — and with good reason. Our kids are not yet eligible for vaccination, and in many cases, they’re returning to schools that are operating at full capacity, with packed classrooms, inadequate ventilation and poor pandemic protocols. My daughter’s Baltimore City school confirmed a case of COVID before the first day was even over, and they’re not even set to begin asymptomatic testing of students until next week.

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That’s a recipe for more cases of COVID cropping up in more homes like mine, where the occupants have spent the past 18-plus months social distancing and following public health best practices. Here’s what my family learned from the experience and what you might expect if COVID comes calling on your kid, and then you — the odds of which are not as unlikely as you might think.

A “mild” case of COVID sure doesn’t look very mild when it’s in your kid.

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The word “mild” in everyday usage would seem to imply that children would have symptoms, but still generally be themselves and able to function regularly. It doesn’t suggest extreme lethargy, chills and severe temperature spikes. In the span of four days, my daughter went from slight fever and sore throat to unable to stay awake and a temperature of 105 degrees. She didn’t have the swollen tongue, red eyes or rapid breathing associated with the multisystem inflammatory syndrome that can sometimes occur in children, known as MIS-C but she did have the headache, dizziness and fast heartbeat. What were we to make of that? If it were the flu she was dealing with, her dad and I would have been concerned, but not terrified. We know what that progression looks like. But this was our first go-round with COVID, and the unknowns were somehow worse to handle that her actual symptoms, which thankfully started to recede on Day 5 — one day before my first symptom appeared.

Choose one parent to be the main caregiver.

How, exactly, does one social distance from an 8-year-old? Or an even younger kid? We masked up, hand sanitized and confined our daughter to her room as much as possible. But when that child needed a hug, I gave it to her. I probably needed it more than she did. And when she woke up soaked in sweat and coughing one night, I climbed into bed with her and stayed for two hours. Apparently, the damage had been done by then, however, because my cough started the next morning.

I wasn’t too surprised; I’d signed up for it. My husband and I decided that he should avoid close contact with our daughter while she was ill and that I would be the main caregiver, so we didn’t both get sick at once (someone had to be able to walk the dog). I also knew how contagious delta is: People infected with it, vaccinated or not, carry a viral load in their throats that’s 1,000 times higher than the version of COVID that shut down schools last year. So, even though I was vaccinated, repeated exposure to that level of virus put me at risk for the disease.

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Breakthrough cases among vaccinated people are likely more prevalent than we know.

Breakthrough COVID cases in vaccinated people are incredibly rare, right? That’s what we’ve been told — repeatedly. But the statement is often based on incomplete data and what appears to be a deep need to keep the messaging around the vaccine hyper-positive because so many people are still so reluctant to get it. I think we can handle the truth, however.

First, let me say that such cases are indeed not the norm. Out of 3.4 million fully vaccinated people in Maryland, fewer than 12,000 of us have been cataloged as getting a breakthrough case. But we do make up a sizable portion of the latest cases. About 8% of COVID cases confirmed in Maryland since January have been among fully vaccinated people, if you trust the state’s record-keeping. We comprise 6.5% of the hospitalizations and 5.3% of the lab-confirmed COVID deaths. The data are somewhat misleading, however.

The delta variant, which is driving COVID cases today, didn’t really take off in the United States until mid-June, when the number of new daily cases started to rise significantly — from a low of 8,432 on June 14 to more than 180,000 on Aug. 26. So averaging from January, when vaccines were first rolled out, dilutes delta’s game-changing impact. Here’s another example: There was a 55% increase in COVID deaths among vaccinated Marylanders in August alone, compared with the previous six months combined. That’s all likely due to delta.

Secondly, we haven’t been counting all that well as a country. While Maryland and some other individual states do track post-vaccination infections (and kudos to them), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in May stopped counting all but those breakthrough cases that led to hospitalization or death. That means we don’t really know on a national level how many mild, yet still contagious, post-vaccination cases are occurring amid delta. And that matters, both for better public understanding and because vaccinated people might still need to behave in public like the unvaccinated, meaning masked and self aware. They may not get very ill if they contract COVID, but they could pass it on to someone who will.

The vaccine is doing its job; get it if you haven’t.

While there are likely more breakthrough cases occurring than we’ve been told to expect, the vaccine really does blunt the effect of the virus. My own case was marked by fatigue, a dry cough and a disturbing loss of smell that still lingers somewhat today, three and a half weeks after my diagnosis. But I’ve had flus that were much worse. The vaccine appears to have kept me from serious illness.

What’s more, it plays a critical role in protecting unvaccinated children, because while vaccinated people can still pass on the disease, they are less likely to do so than an unvaccinated person. A CDC report released last week showed that pediatric hospitalizations in states with high vaccination rates were one quarter the number of hospitalizations in states with low vaccination rates. If you can’t do it for you, can you do it for the kids?

Quarantine guidelines are misguided.

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Three days after my daughter was diagnosed, the Baltimore City Health Department told me I didn’t have to quarantine simply because I was vaccinated. Four days after that, a rapid test told me I had COVID. Vaccines offer good protection, but they are not a suit of armor that blocks the disease from entering your body. If you’re exposed enough, you might get it. That means a caregiver who’s facing regular exposure from an infected child in the home should not be released from quarantine requirements until after the child has stopped being contagious. Technically, the caregiver should then begin another quarantine/testing regimen, because he or she could develop the disease, and pass it on, at any point over the next 10 days or so.

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COVID is both worse than expected and somehow not quite as bad.

I once heard it said that guilty people relax after arrest, because they no longer have the stress of trying to prevent that worst-case scenario. That’s how it felt having COVID in my house. I’ve spent the past 18 months trying to avoid this thing, imagining all the ways it was lurking out there, and once it arrived, I couldn’t do anything but deal with it. It was almost a relief to focus on actual symptoms, rather than the specter of the infection. (I recommend you pick up a pulse oximeter to measure oxygen levels should anyone in your house get sick; it’s good for peace of mind if nothing else.)

And my final take-away from COVID: We really are in this together. I wrote about my daughter’s diagnosis last month, and received well wishes from across the political spectrum. The kindness and concern was overwhelming. People don’t want to see others suffer, we’re just driven by different fears. One group is more afraid of the virus than the vaccine, and the other, the opposite. Perhaps time will convince the latter that vaccination is the safest route. Or, eventually, experience.

Tricia Bishop (tbishop@baltsun.com) is The Sun’s opinion editor.

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