Dear Parents, Can We Please Agree on This?

Dear Parents, we’re all different.

And that’s (mostly) okay. Some of us are tiger-moms and others are unschoolers. Some of us were raised in a barn, and others went to boarding school. We’re all different, and there’s plenty of room in the world for different. Hell, I’m about as different as they come. As long as no one is getting hurt because of it, you do you. And while we may not all agree on the who/what/where/when/why and how of parenting, I think we can all agree on this: no one enjoys being sick. But guess what? It’s that time of year, again. I’m guessing you didn’t need a reminder.

Sick season is here.

With kids back in school, your kids (and you) are almost guaranteed to get sick. It’s estimated that healthy kiddos will be sick four to six times a year, and that average can be double for kids with compromised immune systems or those living with a smoker. That’s once per month during sick season for healthy kiddoes and double that for those who are compromised! And our society isn’t set up to deal with that on any level.

Schools and workplaces are not set up for people to be… human.

Only 76% of working people are guaranteed sick time. In our family, we are entitled to two weeks of sick time – that’s the equivalent of 10 business days. A “cold” is contagious for an average of 5-7 days, which means two colds in a year, and the sick days are GONZO (if you stay home for the entire contagious period, that is). That’s not a lot if you think about a family of 5.

I’m lucky to be a stay-at-home parent, but if I’m incapacitated during any of our family’s sick days, or my husband needs time (he’s in Biotech, so he actually can’t go to work sick), that cuts into the time we might need to take for medical visits and the like. Forget the need for mental health days or the random muscle spasms or migraines.

And then there’s school. Those policies aren’t set up to deal with sickness, either. They want you present, and they encourage this with awards and threats of truancy or falling behind. In their eyes, you’re good to go if you’ve been fever-free for 24 hours without medication. Cool, you could still be contagious.

What may be a cold to you, could be deadly to someone else.

Just think about the recent pandemic we all lived through. COVID-19 is in the same family of viruses as a typical cold and is still deadly. Who would’ve thought? Just last winter, my cousin lost her mother-in-law to a “cold”. She was fighting cancer, caught a cold, and within a week, she was dead. Now three little kids are out a loving grandparent, a husband is devasted, and two sons (and daughter-in-law) are missing her. I know not everyone loves their mother-in-law, but most people don’t want them to die from something completely preventable, either.

Our society is so polarized, that we’ve stopped thinking logically.

Beyond that, we have a vaccination fallacy in our culture. It goes something like this: “I’m vaccinated; therefore, I am not dangerous to others.” We’ve become so polarized that we’ve decided, as a society, that the unvaccinated among us are dangerous cotton-headed-ninny-muggins, and the vaccinated are safe, law-abiding citizens who care about others. I’m not here to dispute the life-saving advances of modern medicine and public health (clean water being my favorite), but let’s all take a step into a cool shower for just a second and think back to what we learned with COVID-19. In my MPH-dropout mind, there were two main takeaways that were pretty glaring:

  1. COVID-19 infection could look like a cold in some, and kill others. Bam.
  2. Those who were vaccinated were less likely to die from COVID-19, but could still transmit it to other people. Crazy. Business.

Can you think about another virus that circulates where the same things hold true? That’s right, the flu. People get vaccinated against the flu every year and still fall ill. Maybe it isn’t as severe, but contract they do, and contagious they are. And then, of course, there’s RSV. To an adult, RSV looks like child’s play, but it can (and does) kill children and babies.

All three infections are deadly in the wrong population of people. While you may have been vaccinated against these diseases (and therefore are less likely to die), that does not mean you are “safe” to go about your life when you appear like you have a “cold.” What may be a cold to you, could be deadly to someone else.

There are plenty of reasons why a person might not be vaccinated.

The judgment around vaccines is strong on both sides. I remember one particularly contentious debate I had while working on my MPH. Of course, everyone in the class had only ever thought about the public health benefits of vaccination (namely, fewer people dying and less stress on the healthcare system). But no one had ever stopped to pause and consider that vaccination isn’t a black-and-white issue and that not all vaccines are necessary for all people. For example, a baby that is staying home probably doesn’t need Rotavirus, but a daycare kiddo definitely does. And that seems to hold true on Reddit forums, Quora, and the like. There is one camp of people who insist that the CDC knows all (they don’t) and another camp that suggests that vaccination is a population control conspiracy theory gone wild (it’s not).

Here’s the scoop: there are lots of reasons people choose not to get vaccinated for certain diseases that have nothing to do with moral or religious opposition. Plenty of people can’t get vaccinated because their immune system can’t handle it or they are allergic to the ingredients in the vaccine (this actually happens and it is really scary when it does, especially in babies). I have one kiddo who started pooping bright red blood clots after the TDap vaccine. Tell me that wouldn’t cause any parent alarm. And how many people suffered myocarditis after the COVID vaccine? A lot. The answer is a lot.

The point is this: there is a whole population of people who can’t get vaccinated because they are immunocompromised – people who suffer from serious diseases like Rheumatoid Arthritis or cancer. This doesn’t make them cotton-headed-ninny-muggins, this makes them vulnerable to the choices of others.

So… what can we do?

So what am I proposing? There are times when you have to go to school or work sick. You can’t use all your sick days for the year in one sickness. I get it. The unfortunate reality of our society is that it isn’t set up to deal with people being.. human.

If you aren’t actively defecating in your khakis, your boss expects you to be in the office. If your kid isn’t vomiting every third minute or coughing green mucus, they had better get back in the ring or they will risk falling behind and failing a whole grade (I find this ridiculous, btw). But you know what you don’t have to do? You do not have to go to “extras” while you or your family is sick.

Here’s a basic demo of how germs spread.

Just last week I was watching my child’s gymnastics class and running very rudimentary epidemiology in my head. In my daughter’s gymnastics class, there are nine students from at least 3 different schools, and my child, who is homeschooled, plus the teacher. I only know the family composition of two students (including mine). With an average family size of four and an average class size of 18, one sick student has the potential to impact 270 others.

This super basic attempt at epidemiology doesn’t include teachers, parents, or their workplaces. Nor does it include fomite transmission, the transmission that occurs when an infected person touches an object, and then a healthy person touches the same object. Of course, this is very rudimentary and doesn’t take into account the reproduction number and a host of other variables, but you can see how far-reaching one sick kiddo in a gymnastics class (or children’s museum, etc.) can become.

My family doesn’t go anywhere sick, either.

I’ll let you in on a well-known secret about myself: I hate hypocrisy. Despise it. Nothing sends me running from a relationship faster than a person being a hypocrite. I’m sure there are times when I can be a bit hypocritical myself, but I try exceptionally hard not to be. That’s why I’m perfectly comfortable writing this post. I don’t take my kids to extras sick, and I haven’t for SEVEN YEARS. I don’t care if we’re home for three weeks. My family will not be frolicking around town if we risk infecting others. We do not have a right to make healthcare choices for other people. Full stop. And you know what else? Our presence at a Laurie Berkner show or tickets to the Science Museum are not worth someone else’s life or general well-being. I know extracurriculars are expensive, but that’s why most places offer make-up classes.

Keep those germs at home.

Whether you’re pro-life or pro-choice, if you’re going somewhere sick (or sending your kids), you aren’t living your values. For all the pro-lifers out there that are sending their kids sick: you could be the cause of someone else’s demise. To all the pro-choicers out there sending your kids sick: you are making health decisions for others. So cut the shit and keep your kids home from extra activities when they’re not feeling well. Make some chicken noodle soup and let them watch cartoons in the afternoon. They’ll be back in the action soon enough and kids sports are far too serious, anyway.

Just think of it this way: if everyone works together (like an actual community of humans), the sick days will decrease and you’ll get a lot of sick time back in your budget for whatever the heck you want. So go out and #bethechange and all that.

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