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We’re living in virus hell

The kids are sick. The parents are not well. Wasn’t this year supposed to be easier?

Black and white photo illustration of five sick children of varying ages and sizes crying, sneezing and having their temperature taken by their parents. Small green virus pathogens are sprinkled throughout the composition.
(iStock/Unsplash/Lucy Naland/Washington Post illustration)

The first positive coronavirus test in our household occurred Oct. 26, and in the beginning, we were fools who believed it might be over fast. My husband was isolated in the basement; perhaps the rest of us would be spared. Five days later, I tested positive. Then our preschool-age daughter did. Then our toddler was diagnosed with RSV, which devolved into a terrible cough, which turned out to be pneumonia.

After 20 days trapped at home together, during which time my children started referring to their Pedialyte ice pops as “ice lollies” because they’d watched 4,000 episodes of “Peppa Pig,” my son at last returned to day care. He lasted two entire days before contracting a new virus, this one accompanied by the sudden appearance of hideous red welts all over his body, which sent him to urgent care just before midnight. Over three weeks, we’d gone from bad to worse to biblical.

Wasn’t this year supposed to be better? (Or was that just something we told ourselves as we limped toward the fading mirage of normalcy?) Instead, the onslaught of viruses this fall has been so monstrous and relentless that it seems as if every parent I know — friends, colleagues, neighbors, everyone — has a story to tell. These are not nice stories. These are stories narrated in a distinctly fatigued-yet-frantic tone, and they always feature specific, memorized numbers: the precise degree of a fever, the tally of missed days of school and work, the frequency of visits to the pediatrician or urgent care or the emergency room.

“I have a 5-year-old and an 8-year-old who started kindergarten and third grade, respectively, the first week of September,” says Alexis McGrath of Parsippany, N.J., who described her family’s experience by email. “Since then, there literally hasn’t been a single week when at least two of us haven’t been home sick.” So far, the siege has spanned three upper-respiratory infections, numerous high fevers, relentless congestion and two confirmed cases of pinkeye, she says. “I. AM. SO. TIRED.”

Cases of covid-19, flu and RSV are colliding, prompting worries about a potential “tripledemic.” Here’s what you should know. (Video: The Washington Post)

Kate Kearns wrote to me from her bed, where she was slogging through Day 7 of the flu: “My 3-year-old is napping next to me, radiating heat with a temp of 102 and moaning softly,” she says. “We’ve only had two or three weeks since the beginning of September where both kids were actually in school/preschool for the entire week.”

“Last week was Langston’s first full week of school in the month of November,” says Jonathan Freeman-Coppadge, who lives in Delaware with his husband and their 7-year-old son, who came home from school with the flu a few weeks ago. “It took 24 hours and three pharmacies to find his antibiotic.”

“I’ve been in the office maybe 10 times in the last two months — only twice in November,” Kelly Trout of McLean, Va., told me. Her family of four, including a 4-year-old and a 2-year-old, has been sick virtually nonstop since Oct. 4; her daughter came home from school the week after Thanksgiving with a 102-degree fever and tested positive for the flu. Trout says she felt resigned: “I’m pretty sure we all have it.”

What is happening to us? If, like me, you’ve scoured the internet through bloodshot eyeballs while listening to your child’s chest-rattling coughs all night, you already know that the available information is neither entirely clear nor particularly reassuring. This year’s “tripledemic” — the dreaded collision of covid, RSV and the flu — is unprecedented in recent history, its origins mysterious, possibly attributed to “immune debt” or “viral interference” or to the way the masses have changed their behavior through the course of the pandemic.

Whatever the precise convergence of causes, the result is a full-blown public health crisis and the worst flu season in more than a decade. Hospitals are overrun, antibiotics and fever-reducing medications are in short supply, and parents — who have already been running on fumes for years — have been reduced to tears and torrents of curses texted to one another at 3 a.m., when yet another thermometer reading confirms yet another fever. My dear friend and I once sent messages about weekend plans; now our threads look like the End of Days.

After my son broke out in welts, I took him to the pediatrician for his fourth visit in three weeks. The nurse told me, in a vaguely haunted voice: “I have been doing this for more than 20 years. I have never, ever seen a fall like this.” This did not make me feel better, exactly, because no one wants to live through the Middle Ages Redux, but it did help me take it less personally — to know that ours was not the only family felled by a ceaseless barrage of plagues, that this wasn’t an indictment of our personal hygiene or a sign that we’d been cursed by a witch.

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Lexa Lemieux, a mom in Bethesda, Md., told me that she had similarly dark thoughts when she gathered with friends and family at a lake house over Thanksgiving. Her household had recently recovered from covid, but she took her runny-nosed 4-year-old daughter to the pediatrician before the holiday just in case, wanting to be sure that she wasn’t a risk to their friend’s infant. All seemed fine at first, but then: “We all started dropping like flies,” Lemieux says. “Everyone was coughing. Several of us were throwing up. The baby was screaming through the night. One of my friends missed Thanksgiving dinner altogether. My mother, who had driven up to join us for a few days in our vacation home, became sick immediately. The trip was nicknamed Thanksgiving of the Damned. We began to wonder if the house was located at the portal of hell.”

Coping with back-to-back infections is overwhelmingly stressful and exhausting, at best; at worst, especially for parents of medically vulnerable kids or those who don’t have the privilege of a flexible workplace, it’s downright terrifying. Meanwhile, even amid the tripledemic, babies and preschoolers are still beset by the usual repulsive miseries: impetigo; hand, foot and mouth; lice; roseola — a litany of ailments that look and sound as if they belong running rampant through a Dickensian orphanage. Add to this mess the horror of not knowing whether you’ll actually be able to get your hands on children’s Tylenol, Motrin or amoxicillin, and of course parents are coming unglued.

When, we beg, can we get a break?

Kearns points out that the old rules don’t seem to apply: In the time before this, one could usually count on a couple of weeks (or at least days) of good health between illnesses; it felt possible to discern whether a kid was coughing because of a new bug or a lingering one. “Now it’s constant,” Kearns says. “It is completely [expletive] unhinged.” When Lemieux was crouched in the bathroom, violently ill at the onset of her flu, she says she yelled out loud, to no one: “BUT WE JUST HAD COVID!”

Despite this chaos, there is still work to get done, children to care for, the incessant demands of daily life. Parenting means constantly looking for the silver linings, and so far I’ve identified two: 1. Sick kids can be atypically sedate and snuggly, which is sweet if they aren’t too disgusting; and 2. If society crumbles, and the resurrection of art and culture depends entirely on the recollections of “Fahrenheit 451”-style wanderers who have committed certain works to memory, I am fully prepared to dictate “Encanto” frame for frame.

Now the winter holidays are fast approaching, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending that everyone start masking again, and people keep telling Lemieux: “At least you had all this before Christmas!” This is intended as optimism, but she hears it as ominous foreshadowing: “I immediately want to knock on wood and light some sage.”

Her words reminded me that my sister-in-law actually gave me a bunch of sage, as a half-joke, after our recent bout of illnesses. I thought about how my son has started coughing again this week, and I eyed the sage. “Why not?” I thought, then set it alight and waved it around. And then I inhaled the smoke and started coughing. And kept coughing. It’s been an hour, and I’m still coughing, but it’s just the sage. It’s the sage, right?

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