Paywalled Article Important to Discussion in Civil Society about Covid-19
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First their 5-year-old got COVID-19. Then the whole family got hit
By Maria Sarrouh Staff ReporterMon., Feb. 8, 2021 7 min. read
Five-year-old Zachary Frohwein shuffled into his parents’ room in the middle of the night. He was wearing his favourite pyjama shorts when he tapped his dad’s shoulder. “My room is warm,” he said.
It was the pre-morning hours of Dec. 15, just four days after Zachary and his big sister, Mikayla, 7, were sent home from school. There had been COVID-19 cases in each of their classes on Dec. 11 — the kids’ second day back in school after a two-week isolation period due to an earlier case in Mikayla’s class.
Effi Frohwein scooped up his son and tucked him back into bed, realizing then, it wasn’t the room that was warm, it was Zachary.
“We took his temperature and realized he had a low-grade fever,” said mom Hilary Edelstein. “In the morning, we followed public health policy and made the appointment for a COVID-19 test. A day later, we found out he was positive.”
That was the start of a six-week-long quarantine full of COVID-19 tests and anxious trips to hospital for the Thornhill family of five. The virus swept through the home, infecting everyone and leaving the family frustrated and isolated.
Theirs is not an uncommon story. Some 117,257 of all COVID-19 cases recorded as of Feb. 6 in Ontario have been due to close contact. Compared to 63,630 linked to community spread and 54,155 cases in an outbreak setting, close contact remains a major source of transmission. And with the presence of more contagious variants, children returning to in-person classes and people advocating for loosening lockdown measures, the risk rises.
“We’ve seen enough instances of cases where an entire family is infected that it should be obvious it’s very difficult to keep COVID-19 from spreading within nuclear households,” said Dr. Abdu Sharkawy, internal medicine and infectious diseases specialist at the University Health Network. “It’s a very contagious virus.”
The Frohwein family anticipated this might happen following Zachary’s positive test. Edelstein, 36, works in health-care research and program management and Frohwein, 42, has a background in health care and sales. Despite Mikayla testing negative and then-nine-month-old Koby being seemingly fine, “we knew it was only a matter of time,” said Frohwein.
Still, the family took measures to try to prevent transmission: they opened windows, put humidifiers in every room and initially wore masks around each other. “We have a very long dining room table. We would sit on one end of the table and Zachy would be all the way at the other end,” said Frohwein. “He didn’t like it.”
It would take a pretty big house and “perfect compliance” — including eating separately and using a different bathroom — to effectively stop the spread of the virus, notes Sharkawy. “Ideally, the infected person should be in a completely isolated part of the home ... they should be on their own floor.”
Frohwein and Edelstein knew those measures weren’t realistic for their family. The children have separate rooms, but they share a bathroom. Mikayla used her parents’ bathroom so Zachary could have the children’s bathroom to himself. But it was “impossible” to confine Zachary to his room.
“We weren’t going to treat him like a prisoner … he’s a five-year old,” Edelstein said. “Five-year-olds want to rip off their mask and hug you and kiss you.”
When the kids wanted to play in shared spaces, the parents moved them into the dining room where windows could be opened. Arts and crafts activities were set up so the children could maintain a two-metre distance.
“The reality,” noted Sharkawy, “is despite whatever public health recommendation we can provide, they simply can’t be exercised all the time.”
Despite their efforts, the family couldn’t prevent the domino effect of symptoms that came after Zachary’s infection. On Dec. 20, just five days after Zachary tested positive, Frohwein was giving Koby a bath when he noticed hives all over his baby son’s body.
“He had spots head to toe,” Frohwein said, adding that Koby had been feverish the previous week, but they figured it was because he was teething. Frohwein quickly finished the bath and took pictures to send to Koby’s pediatrician, who said the hives were probably due to a virus, but not necessarily COVID-19.
The family decided to have Koby tested, just in case. He tested negative.
“We knew it would move from one person to the other. But we were worried about how Hilary and I would react to the virus,” Frohwein said. “We’re in our 30s and 40s … are we going to have a mild flu? Or are we going to have to go to the hospital because we can’t breathe?”
Frohwein, who usually gets on the indoor spin bike every morning, found himself tired and achy on Dec. 26. “I knew something was up,” he said. By that afternoon, his stomach was hurting.
“I got tested and the very next morning I had a positive result,” Frohwein said. “My symptoms were changing daily. One day I would be good. One day it would feel like a bad cold. One day it felt like the flu.” The flu-like symptoms were the worst — runny nose, eyes watering, sneezing. “On the flu-like days, I felt like crap.”
Around the same time, Edelstein started experiencing a faster heart rate, tightness in her chest, nausea and she developed what felt like a sinus infection. She too tested positive for COVID.
Having developed symptoms in the same week, the couple worried about how they were going to manage parenting. “We would trade off who got to lay down and rest and who was sitting with the kids,” Edelstein said. “We focused on making really simple, easy meals that didn’t take a lot out of either of us.”
They also relied on their support network for help; family members left meals in their garage, friends dropped off groceries and art supplies and one of the kid’s teachers even brought colouring books and food.
“Everybody was so nice and so kind,” Edelstein said. “We were able to save enough of our energy that we could maintain things in our household to a certain extent.”
On Jan. 3, more than halfway into his 14-day quarantine period, Frohwein lost his sense of smell and taste. In the afternoon, he had no issues with his coffee and he had suggested a “date night” cocktail with his wife. But by that evening, when he went to try his daiquiri, “I couldn’t detect anything. It was super weird.”
That same week, Mikayla was covered in hives and developed a low-grade fever and what seemed like a cold. She tested positive on Jan. 7.
“We’ve had so many tests,” Frohwein said. “We’ve all had at least four or five tests.”
And while the testing was tough for them all, some tests were harder than others: Mikayla “freaked” during her first nasal swab. “I’m holding her down, another doctor is holding her head back. She’s frothing at the mouth and nose and crying,” Frohwein said. “It was terrible.”
Koby was retested, for the third time, on Jan. 11. The result was invalid. He was tested two days later. The result came back positive.
COVID-19 had made its way through every family member.
Today, the family is out of quarantine, but they express frustration around the mixed-messaging they received about the contagious stage of COVID-19. The answer was always different, depending on who they spoke to, they said.
Asked about what guidelines people should follow, Sharkawy, of the University Health Network, told the Star epidemiology recommendations have been fairly consistent, whether they come from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or Health Canada.
“The science tells us that if you’re asymptomatic 14 days after a known exposure, then you are unlikely to transmit the virus,” Sharkawy said. People exhibiting symptoms 14 days following an exposure are unable to transmit the infection to anyone after 10 days of symptom onset, he added. “You should be free and clear.”
Though the family has been given the all clear, Frohwein still has a persistent cough, and his sense of smell and taste have yet to make a full recovery. But the family is slowly returning to a sense of normalcy. Edelstein is nearing the end of her maternity leave. Frohwein, the designated “errand-runner” has picked up groceries a couple times. On drier days, the kids put on their masks and go scootering and biking up and down their street. They’re also planning for a return to the place they think the chain of infections began: school.
Last fall, the couple determined in-person classes were the right choice for their family because it was better for their children’s learning styles. They took that risk, recognizing their children could be sent home at some point.
While the Ministry of Education has promised enhanced measures to protect students and staff from COVID-19, Sharkawy says, it is “pure speculation” to suggest schools are actually safe. “In the absence of a testing strategy that is widely deployed ... we don’t know how many kids are going back to school unknowingly carrying the virus.”
With York Region schools returning to class on Feb. 16, the family is prepared to take the risk again.
“Are we still nervous? Yes. The variants out there are way more contagious, and we are not immune to catching it again,” Edelstein said. “But it’s for their sanity.”