It started with the chills.
Friday March 6: I was out of town with my wife and our daughters, ages 3 and 4. We were on an abbreviated Spring Break, a 3-day weekend in St. Louis to visit my brother and his family. Sarah and Amelia had runny noses and cough, like all the other kids in preschool.
We’d spent all day at the new St. Louis Aquarium and the Magic House, a children’s museum in Kirkwood. The kids were probably spreading snot and germs around, despite my best efforts to help them blow their noses and wash their hands. I knew the Coronavirus was epidemic in China, but it seemed many weeks away from being a problem here.
After dinner, we were back in our hotel room. Jennifer had some aches and soreness, which is not surprising for a mom who’s been chasing two active little girls all over town. But then she put on a sweater. And got under the covers. “I’m really cold, all of a sudden.” she said.
My thermometer was on the kitchen counter at home, three hundred miles away. Her forehead didn’t feel warm, so I decided it wasn’t a fever. Nothing else to do but get some sleep.
“I think I have the Flu.”
Saturday March 7th: I woke up first, and thought I could get dressed and down to breakfast without waking the kids. Ha! Children will never let you do that. Pretty soon I was sitting in the hotel breakfast room with two kids, three plates and a coffee.
The plan for the morning was to take Sarah and Amelia to their cousin’s 5th birthday party. It was a special treat — they only get to see their three cousins a few times a year. They’d been looking forward to it all week.
Back in the hotel room, Jennifer was not feeling well at all. She was pale. Tired. She felt warmer. We decided I would take the girls to the birthday party and let Jennifer rest.
At my brother’s house, the kids jumped into play-time with their cousins. Toys, watercolors, kick-scooters and bikes with training wheels. They all looked fine. Well, my kids and their cousins all had snotty noses. You wouldn’t notice the coughs, with all the squealing and playing.
I got a call from Jennifer. “I think I have the flu.” she said.
“OK. I want you to get TamiFlu today if it’s the flu. It can’t wait until Monday,” I said. I had a flashback to last Fall, when I had to take Jennifer to the Emergency Room at 7pm on a Friday. Having two small kids whining and crawling on you while trying to get medical care for your wife is harder than it looks.
I asked my brother and sister-in-law if I could leave the kids with them. After all, it was Jennifer who was sick — not the kids.
I drove back to the hotel and got Jennifer. We drove to the Urgent Care. She walked in, got a mask, and sat down. I collected the paperwork and started filling it out. She had cough, congestion, fever, upset stomach. The doctor checked her lungs and examined her throat. He ordered a flu test, which came back negative.
“I think flu,” he said. “The test came back negative, but probably if we gave it to you tomorrow it would come back positive.” He wrote a prescription for TamiFlu and sent it to a local Target pharmacy. We got the medicine and some cups of Jello. I dropped Jennifer off at the hotel and went back to my brother’s house to pick up Sarah and Amelia.
Off to the Zoo!
Jennifer was not feeling well at all. “I felt like I was going to die,” she said later, looking back on that morning in the hotel room. She didn’t feel like she could stand the long trip back to Memphis. I was not going to keep the kids in the hotel room, catching flu and climbing the walls all afternoon.
So I took them to the St. Louis Zoo. How many hundreds of handrails, doors, and other surfaces did they touch and breathe on? Hard to say. At least as many as they did on the day before at the Aquarium and the hands-on activities at the Magic House.
Jennifer felt somewhat better by nightfall. The fever was under control with Tylenol, and we figured the TamiFlu was starting to work to combat the virus. We spent most of Sunday traveling back to Memphis.
It’s Not The Flu
Amelia was a miserable 3-year old by Sunday night. She had a fever to go with the runny nose and cough. She didn’t feel like eating. I put her to bed with some ibuprofen to handle the fever while she slept.
By 8am Monday I was at the Pediatrician’s office with Amelia. I explained that her mother had been diagnosed with flu and Amelia had the same symptoms. The doctor spent a couple of minutes telling me about how their new flu test was the earliest-detecting test on the market. “If it’s flu, we’ll know it,” he said.
He asked some Coronavirus questions. “Any foreign travel? Any contact with people who traveled abroad?” No, and no.
The flu test came back negative. “So it’s not flu, which is good news,” said the doc. He advised me to just take her home and treat the symptoms with over-the-counter meds.
It Gets Worse All Week
By Tuesday, Amelia had a 102.7 fever. Jennifer was still sick. Clearly, the TamiFlu was not working. On Wednesday, Sarah had the fever also. “If it’s not the flu, what is it?” I said.
My brother called. “I think my kids have a fever,” he said. “They are definitely not feeling good.”
I was almost a Coronavirus Super Spreader
So let’s recap. I took my two children to the Aquarium, the Magic House, the Zoo and a birthday party with a bunch of other kids. They touched and breathed on all kinds of surfaces that hundreds or thousands of other people must have touched that weekend.
As far as I knew on Monday, it could be Covid-19. Fever and flu-like symptoms — but two tests confirm it’s not the flu. Covid-19 is contagious even before the fever appears, so my kids could have been spreading it widely in the days before the fever arrived.
With fever and flu-like symptoms — but a negative flu test — experts would say it’s time to do a Covid-19 test. But no tests were available in Memphis.
I felt like I was about to come down with something — fatigue, a hint of pressure in the lymph nodes, a little congestion. But nothing like the rest of the family was going through.
“Let’s all stay home for the week,” I said. “We can’t get a Covid-19 test, and there’s nothing the doctors can do if we have it.” I dug into my stash of electronics and found a pulse oximeter I bought long ago. I put in some fresh batteries and it fired right up.
“If anyone’s OxSat drops below 90%, we’ll head to the hospital,” I said. Meanwhile, the grocery stores and pharmacies were selling out as panic gripped the country.
By Thursday, Amelia’s cheeks were really red.
The week before, she had impetigo on her cheeks that we treated with topical antibiotics. So I assumed the red cheeks were just the skin infection coming back again. Like every 3-year old, the mucus that comes out of her nose gets rubbed around her face more than it goes into a Kleenex.
Jennifer posted a picture to Facebook showing Amelia’s face. “Should I be worried?” she asked. My mother, who had run a preschool for two decades, knew exactly what it was. “That looks like the slapped-cheek disease.” “What??” I said.
It was. I was quickly able to research 5th disease, a common childhood illness caused by a parvovirus. It’s highly contagious, spreading through saliva and mucus. It starts with cough, fever, flu-like symptoms. After a few days, a distinctive rash appears. The pictures online show children’s faces so red they look like they’ve been slapped. Hence, the nickname for the disease.
I called my brother. His kids had the rash, too. Sarah and Amelia’s rashes had spread down to their arms and legs also, totally characteristic of 5th disease. I breathed a sign of relief.
5th Disease in children is not serious. It clears up on its own, and kids make a full recovery. Adults can get it also, although many are immune because they had 5th disease already when they were younger.
Jennifer was probably exposed to 5th Disease through her work as a preschool teacher. Then our kids got it from her. For medical reasons I won’t go into here, Jennifer was more likely to get a serious case of 5th disease than most adults, and less likely to get the rash.
And Now We Wait.
It’s now a week later. Jennifer has slept on the couch several nights, so her coughing wouldn’t keep me awake. She continues to have a low-grade fever. Two nights ago, she had an upset stomach and didn’t eat. Is she still wrestling with 5th disease, or do we have something new?
Last night after dinner, I had a lot of joint and muscle aches — surprising since I hadn’t done any exercise or physical work that day. My stomach was irritated. I had some chills, but my temperature was OK. About 11pm Jennifer came into the bedroom, and I asked her to feel my forehead. “Yep,” she said. “You have a fever.” I got the thermometer — it was 102.3 degrees.
Am I finally getting the 5th Disease that everyone else had? It’s a long-incubation illness. Or is it something else? Am I at risk of spreading a new illness to Jennifer and the kids, or am I the last to get the germs they already have? Time will tell.
But this time, we’re all staying home.