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5 Ways Families Can Prepare as COVID Cases Surge

By Christina Caron | November 18, 2020 | The New York Times

As if parents didn’t have enough to worry about, here’s a new cause for alarm: COVID-19 cases in the United States are climbing toward a third peak, troubling epidemiologists.

Cases are rising to record levels in nearly half the states in the country, driven by uncontrolled outbreaks in the Midwest and Mountain West, where hospitals are becoming overwhelmed.

“The big concern, of course, is what’s going to happen in the winter,” said Dr. Sean O’Leary, vice chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ committee on infectious diseases. “There is some reason for hope that it won’t be horrible. But I think we don’t really know.”

While the onset of another surge may sound frightening, experts say there are things parents can do to start preparing. Here are five ways to help protect your family’s physical and mental health.

1. Make sure your family is vaccinated.

There isn’t yet a vaccine for the COVID-19, but making sure you and your family are fully vaccinated for other illnesses, including the flu, is one of the simplest ways to prepare for a surge.

Public health leaders are urging everyone to get the flu vaccine, not only for their own well-being but for the greater good. The more people who stay healthy, the less chance that hospitals will become overwhelmed with sick patients this winter — especially because it’s possible to get the flu and COVID-19 at the same time.

Experts recommend that both adults and children 6 months and older be vaccinated against influenza by the end of October. If your child is under 9 and has never received a flu vaccine, or has only received one dose of the vaccine in the past, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends two doses, four weeks apart, for maximal protection.

Also check with your pediatrician to make sure your child is up-to-date on other vital vaccines for diseases like measles, tetanus and whooping cough.

2. Create a backup plan for child care.

Many families were caught by surprise in the spring when schools and day care centers shut down. Experts warn that such closures could happen again.

“We’re going to see this roller coaster effect,” said Dr. Eric Toner, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and an expert on health care preparedness. “Cases go up, cases go down.”

As a result, it’s helpful for parents to plan for all possible scenarios, Toner said.

If your child falls ill, for instance, make sure you understand your day care or school policies well in advance. At what point would your child need to be tested for COVID-19? When is it OK to return to school? Rules can vary considerably, but the more you know in advance, the better you can plan.

If you have alternate options for child care — perhaps a couple of trusted babysitters or grandparents who live nearby — speak with them about their willingness and availability to assist in advance of a shutdown, rather than assuming they’ll automatically be free. Will they be able to help out every day? Two times a week?

If your children are attending school or day care in person and become exposed to someone with COVID-19, your family may have to quarantine for 14 days. At that point, you won’t have the option of backup child care because you’ll need to stay away from people who aren’t in your immediate family. Spend some time now thinking about how you would get through those 14 days. If you and your partner work, could you create a staggered schedule that allows you both to care for the kids? Ask your employer about flexible working options, like family medical leave or flex time. If your workplace offers sick time, when is it permissible to use it?

As we saw in the spring, child care solutions can be tough to find.

“It’s complicated, and sometimes there are no good answers,” Toner said.

Cut yourself some slack. The Child Mind Institute, a nonprofit that provides therapy and other services to children and families with mental health and learning disorders, has advice on its website for single parents on how to manage the trifecta of child care, employment and the pandemic, but these tips can be useful to nearly anyone.

One of the recommendations: “Set the parenting bar lower.”

It’s OK if your child is getting more screen time than usual or your go-to lunch has become quesadillas.

3. Preserve your family’s mental health.

The uncertainty of the pandemic has already produced a great deal of anxiety in parents and children.

“What makes this marathon so much worse is the fact that we’re telling you it’s going to get muddy up ahead,” said Dr. Harold S. Koplewicz, medical director of the Child Mind Institute and a child and adolescent psychiatrist based in New York City. “When thinking about tomorrow — that’s what creates anxiety.”

Try to avoid speculating about an advancing surge and instead stay focused on the present by implementing structure and routines for your children, he said.

Stick to consistent bedtimes and mealtimes. Even simple routines like getting dressed every morning can offer much-needed structure. Weekly activities like pizza night or movie night can give the whole family something to look forward to.

Make a habit of expressing gratitude as well, Koplewicz added: Encourage everyone in your family to explain “why we are lucky this week” and challenge them to come up with a different reason each time.

Finally, consider teaching your children mindfulness exercises, Koplewicz said, which can be as simple as sitting still for one minute. It’s a way to help your children stay rooted in the moment and feel calm. They’re great for parents, too.

“Listen to your body, listen to the environment and just let your thoughts go,” he said.

4. Stock up on necessary supplies (but don’t be a hoarder).

Even if your family never gets sick with COVID-19, other infections are likely to make an appearance. You’ll feel more secure knowing that you have everything you need right at your fingertips.

A sample list might include:

— Fever reducers such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil) for yourself and your children

— Thermometers for adults and children, as well as disposable thermometer probe covers (if you use those) and backup batteries

— Hydrating liquids like Pedialyte or apple juice, which can be diluted

— Disinfecting wipes (they’re starting to surface online and in stores again)

— Alcohol wipes for your electronic devices

— Extra formula, baby wipes and diapers

5. Combat pandemic fatigue.

More troubling than the onset of cold and flu season is the fatigue people feel over continual social distancing, avoiding crowded indoor spaces and wearing masks, Toner said. In addition, there is bound to be additional risk as states reopen.

“The reason we’re seeing increasing cases now is because we’ve relaxed those containment measures,” he added. “Those places that somehow think they’re immune to the virus will see big spikes.”

So don’t let pandemic fatigue prevent you from keeping yourself — and others — safe.

Wear a mask if you’re going to spend time with people outside your household; wash your hands frequently; use hand sanitizer if you don’t have access to soap and water; maintain 6 feet of distance from others when possible; and avoid crowded indoor spaces, O’Leary advised.

In addition, get tested for COVID-19 if you’re sick, or if you think you might have been in contact with someone who was.

“We have very good evidence now that this constellation of simple actions really works and has driven down the number of infections tremendously,” O’Leary added.

Staying healthy is another way to help prevent illness. Everyone in the family should get enough sleep and make a point of exercising regularly, even if it's a brisk walk. Eat vegetables, whole grains and lean meats as often as possible, and make sure you and your children are getting regular checkups.

The pandemic can be exhausting. At times it can feel depressing and even interminable. But if your family makes good choices now, you’ll feel stronger and more mentally prepared to ride this out.


Christina Caron
The New York Times

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