When my husband became sick with COVID-19, our safety plan for our 3-year-old had to be rebuilt from scratch. We were planning for things we never thought we'd have to.

By Kim Holland
April 30, 2020
The author and her family.
The author and her family.
| Credit: Courtesy of Kim Holland

Once the first cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in New York, my husband started walking 11 miles roundtrip for work instead of taking the subway. He has a genetic immunodeficiency and tried to do all he could to avoid contracting the virus. To make matters worse, my family lives in Jackson Heights, one of small cluster of neighborhoods in Queens, New York, that have been labeled the "epicenter of the epicenter."

By March 16, we were both working from home with our 3-year-old, Thora, underfoot. Twelve days later, my husband told me he wasn't feeling well, which his temperature of about 102 degrees Fahrenheit confirmed. I ordered him to our bedroom, except to go to the bathroom. Knowing I would not be able to find masks locally or online, I called my mom, and asked her to start sewing.

By the next day, it was clear we had made the right call, as his high temperature held steady, he had a cough and lost his sense of smell and taste, and slept seemingly nonstop.

Reworking our safety plan

We already had a detailed emergency plan, which included a will, guardianship arrangements, and two sets of trusted neighbors in our building who had agreed to care for our daughter on a short-term basis if needed. Now, that seemed wildly implausible since one set of neighbors is elderly and the other had recently gone through a serious illness. Our parents, in their seventies and eighties, were also out of the question.

While my husband's fever, which hovered around 102-103 degrees Fahrenheit even with Tylenol, kept him unable to participate in decision-making, I started making calls. I began with my brother-in-law, an anesthesiologist who has been working on the front lines, intubating the sickest patients. Having seen how quickly COVID-19 patients can deteriorate, he told me to act quickly if Adam's breathing worsened. Knowing that our nearest hospital was completely overwhelmed, he also urged me not to call an ambulance and to get him to a different facility.

With this advice, I started texting friends and family within a two-hour radius. I followed up with a series of awkward but necessary phone conversations, asking each of them point blank whether they were in a position to take our daughter temporarily if I needed help, knowing that she could very well be a carrier. I told them to consider the health status of everyone in their households and consult their partners before responding. I thankfully wound up with four families who committed to show up for our daughter at a moment's notice.

I have always prepared guides for caregivers, with details from lullaby lyrics to the names of favorite stuffies, knowing these would help soothe my daughter in an unfamiliar situation. Now, however, I was focused on practical matters like printing out installation instructions for the car seat, making copies of her medical records, and creating a list for her go-bag that I could pack in 10 minutes flat.

Meanwhile, I explained to our daughter that if I had to take her dad to the hospital, our friends or family would come to pick her up and take care of her at their house until we could bring her back home. She seemed to accept this, but Adam's most likely scenario was harder for him and for me. I knew that hospitals were not allowing family members to enter. I told him to prepare himself to be alone in an ER, without me to advocate for him.

Hitting a wall

With my husband requiring monitoring nearly as close as our 3-year-old, I spent nights catching up at work. Somehow, I was able to keep this up, and was starting to feel a little smug about my (uncharacteristic) stamina.

Then one night, I wondered if the lavender oil I was adding to my moisturizer had lost its potency. I doused myself with it before realizing I might be experiencing the loss of smell and taste associated with COVID-19. I rushed to the kitchen and began sniffing peanut butter, coffee, and parmesan cheese, coming up empty every time. This made me realize I likely had contracted the virus as well.

We had muddled through simultaneous illnesses before, especially during our kid's first year in daycare, but I knew this was different. If I got as sick as her dad, I would need to mobilize our backups to keep her safe, and possibly out of the foster care system. The likelihood that our emergency plan would need to be activated suddenly felt much more tangible.

Getting through the illness

Although the best scenario with a sick family member is a different floor of the house with its own bathroom, in our New York City apartment, we managed with a shared bathroom, where my husband wore a mask except when showering. I should have disinfected it every time he used it but limited my efforts to using bleach solution and rubbing alcohol on high-touch surfaces. I wore a mask when entering our bedroom to bring him meals and push fluids. There was also a lot of hand-washing.

My biggest compromise was with our daughter. I was all she had left, and although I stopped initiating kisses and face touching, I didn't practice social distancing with her, even though I had what appeared to be a mild case of COVID-19.

Our efforts weren't perfect, and we definitely had slip-ups, but I may have gotten much sicker without this minimal regimen. It may also have contributed to the lucky break that our daughter never got sick.

As for our contingency plan, I am so grateful we never had to use it. As I write this, I'm looking forward to my husband's return to our family tomorrow, seven days after his last fever. At 17 pounds lighter than usual, he seems frail, but he can hang out on the couch watching Frozen, and I'll sleep in a bed for the first time in over three weeks.

Our situation was far easier than what so many are facing, including those who have kept our lifelines of groceries, takeout, and packages flowing. Still, with all our privileges, we came much too close to shredding through the safety nets we thought could get us through any emergency.