As a single mom, the prospect of developing COVID-19 makes me nervous. If you've tested positive, here's what you need to know about keeping your own kids safe.
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As a single mother by choice, I have been concerned for some time now about what would happen if I contracted the coronavirus, and got sick. 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 and/or boosted, 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. Here's what they said.

Remain Calm

Getting a positive test result for the coronavirus or experiencing the symptoms of COVID-19 can be downright terrifying, especially when you're the only one around able to look after your child. In a 2021 Pediatrics study, more than 140,000 kids under age 18 lost a parent or caregiver to the coronavirus 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, they tend to experience milder symptoms of COVID-19. But no one really knows what lies ahead with new viral variants. If you test positive, 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 knew she'd make it through. "This is not a death sentence for everybody," she says.

Despite the frightening news headlines, most parents 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 age 18 to 65 who have had COVID-19, less than 5 percent have passed away. And now, that percentage is shrinking.

On the whole, kids come through COVID-19 with flying colors. "Children do remarkably better with coronavirus," says Dr. Berger. "It's not universal, but the rate of serious complications in children is dramatically less than in adults." Cough, fever, sore throat and diarrhea are typical. "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 rare for the disease to be fatal in those under 18. In fact, less than .26 percent of kids who contract the virus die, and just a fraction of those do so because of MIS-C (Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome).

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.

Prevent the Spread

If you think you might have COVID-19, you must avoid exposing anyone else to the virus. That may mean quarantining or isolating at home (see the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines here; their recommendations differ based on whether or not you have been vaccinated). Inside the house, do the following for at least 5 to 10 days: keep your distance from the kids, stick to a separate bedroom or bathroom, wear a mask, wash hands, and change potentially contaminated clothing.

Some of these things are easier said than done, especially when you're caring for a small child. If you find it impossible to follow these rules, make adjustments. Avoid sharing cups, towels, or utensils with them. If you only have one bathroom, wipe down the toilet seat, close it before flushing (to avoid stool particles flying around), and disinfect any other surfaces you regularly touch. If you're co-sleeping, put baby in a crib six feet away, or (with 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.

When Dr. Wolert-Zaromatidis got sick, she took great pains not to pass the virus to her child. "I'm trying to shield all my coughs inside my elbows, or under the blankets, or hurry up and put my face inside my shirt so droplets won't go up in the air, in the case my son is near me," she says. Even if you think you're taking precautions, stock up on relevant medications and supplies (for you and the kids) and consider packing hospital to-go bags just in case an emergency arises. You'll be glad you did.

Parents whose jobs or lifestyle 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 are both in the healthcare 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 never hurts.

Know That Your Kids Will Need You

It's going to happen, especially with little ones. Even though you're sick, you still want to pick up that crying infant or scared toddler. After all, no one wants to see their kids in distress. But you also need to get better, for all of you. If it's hard to be strong, consider asking friends or relatives to take the kids for a week, or until your symptoms improve and you can care for them again. If there really isn't anyone who can help, just do your best. "Our children are stronger and safer during this pandemic," says Dr. Wolert-Zaromatodis. "That makes 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. Experts say parents may nurse as long as they take precautions and speak to a healthcare professional first. Dr. Wolert-Zaromatodis recommends that those who breastfeed wear a dedicated robe while doing so, thoroughly wash hands, and mask up. Some parents may prefer to use formula or express milk (washing hands before touching the pump and bottle, and cleaning both items afterward).

Young kids will still need you to help them bathe or use the restroom, get dressed, and make 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. You can give them directions in the kitchen as they prepare their meals.

Ask for Help When Needed

Single parents know it takes a village—and asking relatives and friends to help is still acceptable 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.

No matter what you think might happen, it's vital to be prepared for any eventuality. You need to have hard conversations with yourself about who might take care of your children if you cannot, and devise a plan just in case you are hospitalized, or worse. Chances are that things will never get that bad, but losing sleep never helped anyone recover from an illness. Focus instead on helping your family thrive.