For many Americans, COVID-19 vaccinations and boosters and the less-severe omicron variant of the coronavirus have allowed a return to some semblance of normalcy, whether it’s been cautiously gathering with family or being able to return to work.
But for South Portland parents Julia Edwards and Joel Hatfield, the latest COVID-19 surge has been the worst. They’re unable to vaccinate their young children in the midst of the rapidly spreading disease and have no choice but to hunker down or risk exposing their children to the illness.
Juggling work and care of their 2-year-old son Trygve and 2-month old daughter Olina means there isn’t time for anything else. And as new parents, it’s wearing on them – mentally, emotionally, and physically.
“There’s got to be a light at the end of the tunnel for you to work towards,” Hatfield said. “And when there’s not, every day is just a loop. Every day is the same.”
While the last few months have been repetitive and grueling, however, there is a glimmer of hope.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration was asked on Feb. 1 to authorize a Pfizer vaccine for use in children under 5 years of age. Availability of the vaccine could come as soon as the end of this month, although there’s the possibility toddlers in the higher end of the age range may need three doses instead of two.
Still, for now, parents have to adjust their lives accordingly. Edwards and Hatfield don’t take Trygve out for errands or playdates, and the only exception they make is for a one-on-one swim lesson where the instructor is masked.
“(We’re) not willing to roll the dice on our kids’ health,” Edwards said, “short-term or long-term.”
The kids have only visited their fully vaccinated grandparents, who also provide child care. But after one grandparent tested positive for COVID-19, even that option has disappeared.
Just four months ago, Hatfield said, things were different, but omicron doesn’t seem to care about vaccination status. If either he or Edwards get sick, he said, “What does that look like? A terrifying scenario.”
Edwards said parenting now is about keeping their kids safe, and she can’t remember what things were like before COVID-19. Trygve, who turned 2 last October, was 6 months old when the first shutdown happened in March 2020. They didn’t want to let the pandemic get in the way of their plans, and they had Olina in October 2021.
Edwards said she had an image of what her parenting experience would be like – and “surviving while trying to let the kids thrive” wasn’t it. She said it’s not the way anyone wants to live.
‘Incredibly perfect storm’
Leah Deragon, co-founder of the nonprofit Center for Community Supported Parenting, a prenatal and parenting program based on Vannah Avenue near Woodfords Corner, said parents have been left to fend for themselves in this pandemic limbo.
There’s a lack of “anyone seeming to care” that new parents are faced with these unprecedented challenges, Deragon said. And after two years it means more parents are even more burned out.
Deragon said she has heard from Birth Roots parents that child care is increasingly unavailable, while parents who have been fortunate enough to find spots still have to pay even if there are closures or if their kids don’t attend. In addition, the same population that can’t be vaccinated – children under 5 – is the population that struggles the most with wearing masks properly.
Parents are left with the choice of sending their children to day care, where they risk being exposed to COVID-19, or trying to balance care and work at home – if that’s even an option.
“This is an incredibly perfect storm that is hitting parents of children under 5 the hardest, and they have no way to solve this problem,” Deragon said.
Birth Roots parents Justin Costa and Zoë Lewin Costa described maintaining the safety of their 5-month old son, Ari, as a state of constantly calculating risk.
It’s been an exhausting period of heightened responsibility, Zoë said: If Ari contracts COVID-19, it means they put him in a position to be exposed or exposed themselves to it.
Child care wasn’t an option for the Costas, and if it was, they likely would’ve needed to find a place months in advance. Instead, they have made a significant investment in a nanny and are thankful they’ve been able to work from home as much as they can.
Justin, an accountant with Portland-based Auto Europe and former Portland city councilor, said their employers have been supportive generally, but there are stressful challenges. “Sometimes virtual work meetings just aren’t the ideal,” he said.
Zoë recently accepted a promotion as Portland director of LearningWorks AfterSchool, but not before weighing the risk of being in and out of schools with Ari at home.
Working full-time from home without day care can also be a grind.
Joel Hatfield said he’s constantly trying to get work in whenever he can: during their kids’ nap times, by staying up later when everyone is asleep, and by getting up before everyone else to get more done.
“It’s been incredibly isolating,” Julia Edwards said, “and it’s gotten worse as time’s gone on.”
Under normal circumstances, community programs like Birth Roots would mitigate burnout for parents. Deragon said parents shouldering the burden entirely on their own during a pandemic is even harder to grasp.
Hatfield and Edwards had a taste of what they planned to do as parents, Hatfield said, as part of a Birth Roots group before Trygve was born. When all the children were born within a month of each other, the group began to plan playdates and visits to breweries and restaurants – it was a type of therapy, decompressing with other parents and sharing their experiences.
But it wasn’t long before COVID-19 put an end to all that.
Hatfield said he went from thinking “these are the children my kids are going to know their whole lives,” to not being comfortable with an outside get-together in their neighborhood.
Birth Roots is now running a program called 100 Days of Winter to help parents deal with the challenges of the pandemic. Weekly emails provide parents with simple things they can do to occupy their children and provide some structure when the days are blending together.
The end of the tunnel?
While vaccinations for children between 6 months and 5 years old remain unavailable, parents of young children remain in limbo. Vaccinations for their children would provide relief, but their safety will still depend on the greater community.
In Portland, fortunately, many parents are taking the opportunity to vaccinate their kids.
According to a Bangor Daily News analysis of U.S. Centers for Disease Control Control data that was shared on Instagram last week by Portland pediatrician Dr. Ali Kopelman, Cumberland County has the fourth-highest rate of fully vaccinated 5- to 11-year-olds in the nation: 60.4 percent, behind only two counties in California and one in Texas.
Kopelman said this shows the dedication of parents in the community to keep their children safe and in school.
Data from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention is similarly encouraging, showing 95 percent of Portland Public Schools students are vaccinated.
Justin Costa said he takes confidence from the local data. But if a vaccine is approved for infants and toddlers, he said he’d feel much better about Ari’s safety, and would plan to vaccinate him as soon as possible.
It would be a “big step towards normalcy,” Costa said.
The FDA’s vaccine advisory committee is scheduled to meet Feb. 15 to discuss the use of the Pfizer vaccine in young children. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control would also have to give its blessing before vaccinations begin.
But just the prospect of vaccinations provides a ray of hope that some degree of normalcy may be on the horizon.
“It’s comforting,” Julia Edwards said, “to at least have a target in sight now.”