What to Do If You're Diagnosed With COVID-19 as a Single Parent Without Backup

As a single mom, I'm nervous about contracting COVID-19. Experts weigh in on how to keep your kids safe if you've tested positive.

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As a single mother by choice, I have been very concerned about what would happen if I got COVID-19. I have few child care options at my disposal, so leaving my young daughter in the care of someone else isn't feasible. All parents and kids over age 5 can now get vaccinated, so that helps. But breakthrough cases of COVID-19 still happen. Curious about how to handle the illness if it occurs, I asked the experts for advice on parenting with COVID-19. Here's what they said.

Remain Calm

Finding out you've tested positive for COVID-19 or even just feeling symptoms can be terrifying, especially when you're the only one around to look after your child. The fear isn't unfounded: According to a 2021 study published in Pediatrics, more than 140,000 kids under age 18 lost a parent or caregiver to the COVID-19 over the course of one year, when the crisis was at its height. Lead researcher Susan B. Hills called it "a hidden, global pandemic that has sadly not spared the United States."

When people get vaccinated, however, they tend to experience milder symptoms of COVID-19 and their risk of hospitalization and death decreases significantly. But no one really knows what lies ahead with new viral variants.

If you test positive, however, don't freak out. "Keep your mind and spirit calm as much as possible," urges Mary R. Wolert-Zaromatidis, M.D., a pediatrician at ProHEALTH Port Washington Pediatrics in Port Washington, New York. The mother of a teenage son, Dr. Wolert-Zaromatidis got COVID-19 with her parents at the start of the pandemic. Even though everyone was panicking, she followed her own advice. "This is not a death sentence for everybody," she says.

Despite the frightening news headlines, most people who get COVID-19 will be fine. "They have a bad cough, maybe some diarrhea, body aches, fever, and thankfully they recover," observes Jay S. Berger, M.D., chair of pediatrics at ProHEALTH Care. The fear of leaving your kids alone can keep you up at night, but the odds that you will die from the coronavirus are fairly slim. Among those aged 18 to 65 who have had COVID-19, less than 5 percent of those cases were fatal. And with primary vaccines and boosters, that percentage is shrinking.

On the whole, kids generally fare well with COVID-19. "Children do remarkably better with [COVID-19]," says Dr. Berger. "It's not universal, but the rate of serious complications in children is dramatically less than in adults." Symptoms like cough, fever, sore throat, and diarrhea are common in kids with COVID-19, but not a given. "It comes and goes for the most part," notes the father of two.

While pediatric cases of COVID-19 rose in early 2022, it's still rare for the disease to be fatal in those under 18. In fact, less than 0.26 percent of kids who contract the virus die, and just a fraction of those do so because of a rare complication known as multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C).

If you're feeling excessively anxious about the virus, try cutting back on TV and online news. "Watch a little bit in the evening, maybe 15 to 20 minutes' worth—that's it," says Dr. Wolert-Zaromatidis. "Media is a very big anxiety factor for a lot of people."

Reduce the Risk of Getting Others Sick

If you have COVID-19—or suspect you may have it—it's important to take precautions that help avoid exposing others. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) tells Americans to quarantine and isolate from others in their home if they have symptoms of COVID-19 or test positive. But this is easier said than done for single parents. And for parents of children who require hands-on care, true isolation from their children is near impossible. So adjustments must be made.

Any contact with well family members when you are sick requires wearing a well-fitting mask, shielding coughs, thorough hand-washing, and changing potentially contaminated clothing. When you can, however, try to keep your distance.

Avoid sharing cups, towels, or utensils. If you can, use a separate bedroom and bathroom. If you only have one bathroom, wipe down the toilet seat, close it before flushing (to avoid releasing contaminated stool particles), and disinfect surfaces you regularly touch. If you're room-sharing or co-sleeping, put your baby in a crib or bassinet 6 feet away, or (for older kids) sleep head-to-toe. If your home is too small for you to adequately distance from others, make sure that the rooms are well-ventilated.

Parents whose jobs or lifestyles put them at greater risk of being exposed to coronavirus must closely adhere to these rules, especially if they have an immunocompromised child. Dr. Berger and his wife both work in the health care industry, and the risks they faced at the start of the pandemic meant they had to go long stretches not hugging their kids—a hardship for their usually "huggy, kissy family," he recalls. Do you need to take it to that level? It's a personal decision, but being vigilant may be best for your family.

Have a Plan for When Your Kids Need You

Your kids will need you. But they also need to get better. If it's too physically difficult or your children need constant hands-on care, consider asking close friends or relatives to take the kids for a week, or until your symptoms improve. If that isn't an option, or you fear infecting your support system, just do your best. "Our children are stronger and safer during this pandemic," says Dr. Wolert-Zaromatodis. "That makes it easier for us to care for them and ourselves when we are sick."

Babies are physically vulnerable, but breastfeeding while you have COVID-19 does not pass on any viable virus, and breast milk can transfer protective antibodies, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Experts say parents may continue to nurse as long as they take precautions and feel well enough.

Dr. Wolert-Zaromatodis recommends that those who breastfeed wear a dedicated robe while feeding, thoroughly wash their hands, and mask up. Some parents, however, may prefer to have someone else take over feeding and choose to bottle-feed with formula or expressed breast milk (washing hands before touching the pump and bottle, and cleaning both items afterward).

Young kids will still need you to help them with everyday tasks like bathing, using the toilet, getting dressed, and making meals. If you handle food, remember: "Wear a mask while you're preparing it," says Dr. Berger. "Wash your hands really well and don't forget about keeping serving utensils clean."

Older kids are better able to take care of themselves while you keep your distance. "Talk to them on the phone or FaceTime to help them," Dr. Berger advises. That may include helping them find where things are in the kitchen so they can prepare food for themselves.

Ask for Help When Needed

Single parents know it takes a village—and asking relatives and friends to help is still acceptable (and arguably necessary) at a time like this, says Dr. Wolert-Zaromatidis. While online services abound, don't be ashamed to recruit loved ones to do the grocery shopping, cook meals, or pick up medicine from the pharmacy, leaving any items outside your door. Pals can even help your children with their homework virtually.

Even outside of a global pandemic, it's vital to be prepared for any eventuality. Single parents should have a plan in the event that they need to be hospitalized. You'll need to have hard conversations with yourself and your loved ones about who might take care of your children if you cannot—whether temporarily or long-term—and devise a plan just in case. Chances are that those plans will never come to fruition, but losing sleep over worries never helped anyone recover from an illness. Focus instead on helping your family thrive.

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