It’s morning, and my husband, a health care worker in a local hospital, texts me: “Glad I shaved last night. My first call this morning was in a COVID room.”
I stare at the message, my hand atop the kitchen counter to steady me as my heart rate increases.
The prior week, he’d mentioned needing to shave his beard so that his N95 mask would fit his face properly. COVID-19 cases in the hospital where he works weren’t just creeping up, he’d said — they were accelerating at a pace far faster than last summer.
“By the end of the week or early next week, we’ll easily top what was our highest number of COVID patients last year,” he’d told me.
We live in Florida, and every day, my state breaks some kind of previous COVID-19 record as the delta variant ravages communities. In some areas, ambulances wait an hour or more to offload patients because ERs have no space. We’re in the middle of one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in the U.S.
All the while, my husband and I are parenting two boys and trying to prepare for the school year.
I’m having a hard time focusing on school supplies and schedules, though, because Florida has more children hospitalized due to COVID-19 than any other state. We have no idea how many kids are dying, either, because, on July 17, Florida stopped reporting deaths by age group to the CDC.
Well past the workday hours, I get off the phone with a representative at my county health department. I’d learned from my 4-year-old’s preschool teacher a few days earlier that another teacher at the school who had covered for her had tested positive for COVID-19. The school’s administration did not notify me.
The woman at the health department, after speaking with the state epidemiology department and the preschool, called me back to tell me that the school had followed all necessary protocol.
But I wasn’t informed that my child had been exposed, I said. The health department official replied that because the teacher wasn’t in my child’s classroom for 15 minutes or longer, the school was not obligated to notify me.
My son’s teacher texts me the next morning:
“We had another person test positive. In the room right next to mine.”
In a closed-door, emergency meeting two days before school starts, my county school board hashes out whether or not to mandate masks. Parents and the public are not present. I find out through a parent Facebook group that a reporter is live-tweeting the meeting. Together, we parents learn on Twitter that our county will not change its “masks optional” stance.
A day later, Pinellas County hits an all-time high in COVID-19 positivity rate.
Previous to this meeting, one school board member said pro-mask parents had been “very quiet” until recently. It wasn’t until recently though, that the delta variant started ravaging our state, sending our children into ICU beds in droves.
But maybe it’s not their fault that they didn’t stand up for the health and safety of my children and countless others. After all, Gov. DeSantis set the tone when he threatened to defund districts and strip school officials of their salaries if they mandated masks for students.
I see my cardiologist for a follow-up. He asks me how I’ve been feeling and if I’ve had any recent “episodes.”
Just last year, I was hospitalized for what looked like a heart attack. When I’d arrived at the ER, my heart rate was alarmingly high, and my EKG later came back abnormal. I had stayed in the hospital for 24 hours as nurses monitored my heart and aids tested my blood for enzymes that are released after a heart attack. They tested for blood clots. Everything came back normal, with the exception of my potassium. It was the third time I’d been hospitalized for apparent heart attack symptoms.
At the follow-up with my cardiologist, he tells me that despite all my test results coming back fine, my two-week heart monitor does show some strange heart activity, though he has no reason for why that would be, so we keep testing.
He asks me if I’ve come into contact with anyone who had COVID-19.
“I’m going to be frank with you,” he says. “You cannot get COVID-19. Your heart is too sensitive, and I’m concerned about complications.”
I vent on a group text I have with my four best mom friends. I lament to my sister, who tells me that in Maryland, where she lives, they’re taking things much more seriously. She says if the UPS delivery person tests positive for COVID-19, everyone in every place of business or education on their route has to be notified.
I’ll admit it: I spun out a bit. Parenting in this pandemic — in the state of Florida— sometimes feels like the prequel to a dystopian novel. Hyperbole? Sure, but rage and hopelessness build simultaneously in my gut with every new report about Florida’s increasing COVID-19 numbers and our governor’s negligence.
A couple of nights ago, while waiting in the pharmacy line for my 4-year-old’s prescription to treat his double ear infection, I sent my husband a screenshot of what a local nurse had posted on social media about the local children’s hospital reaching capacity.
My husband texted me back that he thought it would be a good idea for me to sign off for a bit. Decompress. Think about something else. He reasoned that an overload of information wouldn’t help and that I needed a break from all the noise.
I’m not sure how I’m supposed to think about anything else, though. Daily, I watch as my teacher friends post their dismay and fear online. Fellow parents of immunocompromised children beg their friends and family to sign petitions calling on the school board to mandate masks because their kids so desperately want to go back to school this year.
I scroll through Instagram and see that more local businesses are back to requiring masks indoors. They ask the public to respectfully abide and be kind. Meanwhile, the comments are flooded with vitriol. Some commenters say they won’t be patronizing that business anymore.
And yet, Gov. Desantis continues to defy CDC recommendations about masking indoors, even for those who are vaccinated and especially for those who are not. About 2.8 million students in Florida have no choice as to whether or not they get vaccinated because they’re not old enough.
Both my husband and I work, so virtual school isn’t an option. We tried it in the first semester of the 2020-21 school year, and like so many other women during the pandemic, my income tanked as my focus shifted to helping my child manage virtual learning.
Since March 2020, my family and I have done everything recommended to stay safe. We sheltered in place when needed. We stayed away from family and friends, stopped eating out and going to the movies, and for the first semester of last year, even at the expense of my child’s mental and emotional health, we’d tried virtual school. We all got vaccinated when we were eligible.
My husband and I made the tough decision to send our teenager back to in-person school before a vaccine was available to him. We did so because the school board had mandated mask-wearing for all students, teachers and administrators and had also implemented social distancing. And we believed in the science that said masks and social distancing worked, so we took a chance and sent our child to school.
Our child’s mental health and grades improved within the first week. The school, which has nearly 1,000 students and around 65 teachers as well as support staff and administrators — reported less than 25 COVID-19 cases that semester, proving that the measures worked.
Now, though, as the new school year starts with no mask mandate or social distancing and we’re staring down the delta variant, I am more terrified for my family than ever before.
I fear it’s only a matter of time before one of us succumbs to this illness that’s already killed millions worldwide, and I’m awash with powerlessness as state and local public servants do nothing to help.
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