The words are all too familiar to any parent on a long trip with kids. The answer is never satisfactory, yet they will continue to ask anyway, repeatedly, I guess hoping at some point there will be a different one. Collectively we’ve been asking ourselves the same question as the months drift by, vaccinations roll out, and case rates fall….are we there yet?!
I’m an adult pulmonary critical care physician and have been on the front line of COVID ICU care since March 2020. I’ve seen the absolute worst of the pandemic. From that experience, I’ve learned how to protect myself in the workplace and have applied that knowledge and practice to my life outside of the ICU. I’d like to believe that over the preceding year I have perfected the right balance of vigilance; I feel confident managing risk, but not at ease, with the virus. I protect my family in the ways that make sense, but don’t go overboard with infection control to the point of obsession. I choose our family’s social interactions carefully and adopt what Lena Wen, MD, has called ‘risk budgeting’; do the higher risk activity that is important to our overall wellbeing and compensate by cutting back on other exposures that are less important. For us, that means dance class, ice skating, and Target runs as a family, but no dining in restaurants….and no public pools.
With my husband and I now a couple months post-vaccination and case rates in post-holidays decline, we decided to use spring break as an opportunity to venture out with our 3 young children to visit frail grandparents in the nursing home for the first time since 2019. We recognized they may not make it to Christmas or even summer break this year and wanted to see them this spring—just in case. We decided to stay in a hotel to reduce risk to vulnerable, unvaccinated family and traveled by car to avoid airports. Long car drives = risk budgeting for our jet-setting family.
At first our hotel experience was surprisingly delightful. Facilities were sparkling, masks were mandated and distancing was enforced. It felt really safe and I felt totally relaxed. There were maybe a half dozen other guests in the entire building and no other families, which meant the hotel pool was wide open for our enjoyment. Ahhh, the pool (and hot tub). I mean they were empty and I just couldn’t say no to those 3 sets of puppy dog eyes staring back at me? And of course, like any seasoned parent who knows her kids too well, I had already looked up the state’s current pandemic guidelines on public pools and confirmed the green light for 50% occupancy. So we enjoyed the pool daily, all by ourselves, until the last night of our stay. While we were swimming a large extended family barged in, about a dozen roughly age 2 to 50 all entering mask-free, and jumped right in around my kids. In ‘regular times’ I would have just been annoyed, but under the current circumstances I was strangely panicked, as were my kids. My 5 yr old kept shouting “But Mommy, what are they doing?! The coronavirus!” I was proud of my kids for correctly recognizing that this entire family had purposefully disregarded hotel masking policy, the adjusted pool occupancy limit and any semblance of social distancing. The matriarch of the group clearly read my face and confronted me: “What, we’re below the occupancy limit” lurching at me and pointing to a faded poster on the wall. I politely noted that her assessment was incorrect and that it would have been nice if they had merely regarded our presence before taking over the place. I was incensed, but quietly gathered myself and the kids and got out of there. Afterward, I couldn’t believe how unnerved and violated I felt. I mean I had it all under control, right? I knew how to protect my family and always made all the right decisions on their behalf, right? How did things go from feeling super-safe to super-spreader so quickly?
Upon reflection, I think the answer to that age-old question is what it always has been: almost there, but not quite yet.
As much as I feel emboldened by my own vaccination status, I have to remember that I can’t control everything in our family’s environment, no matter how hard I try. So my concluding message is for us all as parents vaccinated or not: stay strong and maintain vigilance for just a little while longer—for our kids.