The Omicron experience: Families with young children — including mine — still face pandemic purgatories

Liza Monroy and her family in bed.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

In the first of a two-part series on parenting through Omicron, Liza Monroy writes about the jarring experience of COVID hitting her Santa Cruz household, the effects of a “lost month” on her family, and the lingering impact.

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It can be tempting these days to think of the pandemic as over, or no longer a potentially life-altering problem. But for parents of young children like us, even with a vaccine for our youngest now becoming available, the Omicron age continues to upend family life.

We are far from alone. Our own story of a “lost month” surprises me in its retelling. Less than a month following the mask mandate in Santa Cruz schools being lifted, my 6-year-old brought Omicron into our household. I caught it first and my husband immediately followed. I thought it would be mild and not life-altering at this point, since we’re vaccinated and boosted. Probably an inconvenience at most. But I have realized that when you have young kids, the Omicron age is full of anxiety. The illness can upend families, and our carefully constructed balance can simply fall apart, accompanied by unknown health consequences.

Monday, I share our family’s story. Tuesday, I’ll report on my talks with four families, from Watsonville to Ben Lomond, all with children ages 16 and under. Though their lives are vastly different, the Omicron experiences share similar threads.

Our “lost month” happened shortly after the mask mandate was lifted at school, in March. I asked my first-grader, Olivia, to please still wear one indoors. But she decided she was done with it. She would be free! For the first time since becoming a parent, there was nothing I could do about a decision my 6-year-old was making. My husband and I had no control over whether she wore a mask at school. Her teachers weren’t going to be the mask police. So in a surreal-feeling reversal, a first grader was in charge of a major health decision instead of us parents.

She gets to decide about pandemic safety or lack thereof? It seemed absurd to me.

The January Omicron wave was several months behind us, and we were back to activities we’d put on pause like jiu-jitsu class and birthday parties. Still, I was nervous. Our younger daughter, Aleshandra, who is 3, was too young for a vaccine. Olivia, at 6, was already fully vaccinated. If we caught COVID, I was most concerned about Aleshandra.

One afternoon during spring break, Olivia, accustomed to going unmasked, refused to wear one in the Monterey Bay Aquarium, a beloved place I never thought I’d regret visiting. By the end of the week, her surveillance testing — an email that always came in with a “Negative” — popped up “Positive.” I freaked out, put on a mask, rushed home, and found her sitting on the couch with my husband, who’d been called to pick her up from school.

She looked up from the “Octonauts” episode she was watching. “I have COVID,” she said plainly, and pouted, completely asymptomatic.

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I wondered what to do next. How do you put a 6-year-old into isolation? You can’t. Should I move my other daughter and I upstairs? My husband said it was silly for me to wear the mask in the house. “We probably all have it already,” he speculated. I panicked some more.

By evening, my symptoms started. They ran the gamut: electric-feeling chills, a weird current running through my body, fever, an aching ... jaw? Joint aches and pains, as if I’d worked out too hard for too long. My usually hearty appetite vanished. Waves of nausea ensued. It was the sickest I’d been in years, and the symptoms were nothing like bad colds and flus of the past. This virus was a different, unpredictable animal.

I tested positive, obviously, the next morning, a Saturday. For three days, Saturday, Sunday and Monday, I consumed only broth, juice and tea and lost seven pounds (significant when one is 5-foot-2 and 110 pounds). Coffee, which I relished normally, tasted vile. Mental and emotional symptoms were also powerful: I felt depressed. Foggy. Confused. Totally unlike myself. I couldn’t work or walk half a block without complete exhaustion. I felt like I would never surf, dance, write or be the same again.

I tested negative quickly, by Thursday. But my husband was then testing positive. I was exhausted as if I hadn’t slept in days (and I still couldn’t sleep through the night, waking up in sweat) and still felt depressed. I also felt deceived. If this was the “milder strain” of Omicron, if this was a COVID infection after being vaccinated and getting a booster, if this was a mild case — why had so many masks been flung to the wind, why was it acceptable to let our children unmask at school?

And adding to the weirdness of it, ironically, after all my worrying, my younger daughter, the unvaccinated one I worried about, never tested positive.

The fallout of having COVID in the Omicron phase, as a family with young children, has been jarring physically, mentally, and emotionally: putting us back into isolation after having a taste of pre-pandemic freedom, missing school and going back to distance learning all over again (packets!), missing work for my husband, missing deadlines and lost clients for me, days in bed, exorbitant bills from DoorDash for no-contact food deliveries — a luxury to be able to have. Friends and community were lifesavers with soup drops and offers of help.

But other than leaving soup on your doorstep, there’s not a lot anyone else can do. No one else can care for kids in a COVID-quarantined home. The only upside to the way the virus seems to work is that Jason and I were not sick at the same time. By the time he was symptomatic, I was back to my normal activities as a negative-testing, vaccinated person whose contagious period had ended, per guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Afterward, I am surprised by how traumatizing my Omicron experience was. And lasting — I still don’t feel quite the same as before; I tire more easily, experience more anxiety and am less patient. My taste for coffee has returned, but my ability to focus for lengths of time has not. I have trouble remembering things and finding things. I struggle to sit in front of the computer and get work done for more than small stretches of time.

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I don’t really talk about these lasting changes. I feel ashamed, as if it’s somehow my fault, or if I’ve become lazy. Local therapist Jody Wilfong says more people have been seeking out her particular practice, music therapy, because of increased anxiety and isolation. “I’ve been doing relaxation techniques with clients more than ever before,” she says. “Stress, anxiety and depression are three big effects we’re seeing. We’re in a mental health crisis in this country. I’ve never seen it this bad.”

During and following Omicron, I went through that with my own family and learned that many other families with young children did, too: From farmworkers to teachers to health care practitioners, we all experienced physical and psychological traumas when the virus came home.

Tuesday, I’ll share the stories of four of those families’ experiences with you — and you might see how they might resonate with your own.

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