We knew we were taking a risk. We weighed it repeatedly in our minds. Do we travel to New Jersey in December? Or do we stay home for the holidays? After taking abundant precautions, we decided to go to New Jersey. And then…the worst happened. That is right, we all got exposed to COVID-19 …. 3,000 miles away from home. Check out what we did, the precautions we took, and how we handled the disease and required quarantines while away from home.
Back in September, when things were starting to get better, my husband and I decided to spend 3 weeks of December in New Jersey. We usually do not see our family during the holiday season, but we realized that we had a unique opportunity in 2020. The kids’ school was virtual. My husband’s work was remote and so was mine. A long trip would allow us to work and do school during the required 2-week quarantine. My Dad is retired and a cancer survivor and my grandmother is disabled and stays at home, so we would be quarantining with family who was at very low risk for exposure. Our biggest concern was that we would catch COVID on the flight and bring it to them. But we thought we could take precautions on the flight, we could quarantine for 2 weeks, and then we would have a week to do a few socially distant activities.
Fast forward to the beginning of December and the situation is rapidly changing. There is a new strain of the virus (B117 strain), cases are rising, and it is quickly getting out of hand. Governor Newsom in California announced new shelter-in-place measures. Non-essential travel would not be allowed. My husband and I had a decision to make. We could leave before the lockdown occurred and spend an extra time in New Jersey, or we could cancel the trip. I know the right decision was probably to cancel. But the emotional decision was to go. My grandmother had had several falls, close calls, and illnesses in the last year, I really do not know how much longer I have with her. I knew that we likely will not have this opportunity to spend so much time in the future. We rebooked our flight for the day before the lockdown, wore N-95 masks and face shields, and the four of us and the dog boarded our flights for New Jersey.
Honestly, the trip was great at the beginning. We did our two weeks at home, with everyone getting into a routine of working and attending school. We had lazy mornings, “recess” in my Dad’s backyard. We adjusted our schedules to also be able to spend time with my Dad and Grandmother. My sister would stop by with the kids occasionally, which my kids loved. Once our quarantine was done, we got out a few times doing some fun masked, socially distant holiday activities. As Christmas rolled around, we talked about how fast our trip went and started to dread heading back on the first. We would soon regret that thought…
Day 0 – Exposure Day
Close to Christmas and well into our trip, we took a day trip to New York. My dad had doctor’s appointments in the city, so we took advantage. Meanwhile at home, my sister came over to sit with my grandmother until the home health aide came. While there, a friend of my grandmother’s came to visit. She stayed for about two hours. At some point they had coffee and took off their masks. They never put them back on. We came home after the friend left but spent time with both my grandmother and sister unmasked (as they had been part of our pod).
Day 2 – Notification
Two days later, we get a call from my grandmother’s friend. Turns out the same day she came to visit, she had had a COVID test – and was positive. She had spent significant time unmasked with the most vulnerable member of the house. We took stock immediately of who we may have been in contact with in the last two days. Thankfully, our pod of 10 had kept to themselves. We had all been exposed at this point. We decided to celebrate Christmas, but my grandmother mostly kept to her room and wore a mask. We scheduled a COVID test for my grandmother, but that was hard to schedule Christmas weekend.
Day 4 – Symptoms
My grandmother woke up with a cough. As the day progressed, the cough got worse, and worse…and worse. She came out of her room to say she thought she had it. It was Christmas weekend. Her doctor was not answering calls. My dad wrapped her up and took her to the ER. Unfortunately, even though my grandmother has significant difficultly communicating and severe mobility limitations due to her stroke, they sent my Dad home. It was a miserable few hours from there. Due to the chaos in the ER she was left alone and in confusion a lot. She kept calling us and we would then have to call the ER and either request something for her or get an understanding of whatever the nurse or doctor had told her. It became obvious the nurses were annoyed with our calls, but as I explained (multiple times) if you have a patient that cannot communicate well, and you do not allow them a helper, then you must deal with the calls. I do not think that endeared me to them much. After a few hours thought, we got the expected diagnosis – COVID – 19.
As terrible as this sounds, we thought they would admit her. My grandmother has never gone to the hospital in the last 8 years and NOT been admitted. However, with a pandemic, and since her chest X-ray and CT scan were clear, they decided to release her. They provided her with a Z-Pak and steroids and asked us to come pick her up. However, she was coming home to a house where there were 5 other people and 1 bathroom.
As we were waiting for instructions, the adults got about to disinfecting the entire house. When we knew she was coming home, we implemented policies. We decided to wear masks all the time in the house. Keep my grandmother to her bedroom, including bringing her meals inside, and everyone would disinfect the bathroom after every use. My Dad said he would be the one to take care of his mom to avoid too many people getting this.
Getting the kids to understand that they could not hug or go in their great-grandmother’s room was hard. They were scared. They knew COVID could be serious, and they were scared because we had hammered home the point that we had to protect my grandmother over all else. Now it was her who was sick.
Day 7 – The Other Adults Get Tested
As soon as my grandmother was taken to the hospital, my husband and I scheduled tests for the rest of the adults. We all had regular PCR tests scheduled, but my Dad woke up with a cough. He called his doctor who took him in for a rapid Antigen test. He tested negative. The doctor told my dad to avoid his mother and my Dad laughed. “She’s disabled and needs constant help. There is no way to avoid her”. But he did take care of her masked and with gloves. But we knew it was only a matter of time.
My sister and her husband got regular PCR tests. They called my sister two days later with the news – POSITIVE. My husband and I went to the local CVS. It was an easy self-swab with results that were supposed to come back in 2-5 days. My husbands came back in 2 days – NEGATIVE. Mine never were returned. I am still livid about that.
We spent the next several days resting, taking vitamins, and watching a lot of movies and television. My husband’s work was closed, and I was working ½ days that week. It was a good week to be chill. My Dad mostly stuck to his room. He had a bit of a cough and was tired. We were fairly sure he had COVID but he was sure it was just a cold. He did, however, stay to his room and masked just in case.
My grandmother got a little better as she took the meds. But as she finished the meds, she started to get a little worse…
Day 11 – The Worst Day
My grandmother had not slept much because she had found it difficult to breath during the night. I noticed her coughing was labored as well as her breathing. Her oxygen levels were ok, and she had no fever, but I just didn’t like the way she sounded when she coughed.
Meanwhile I noticed my son looked a bit glassy-eyed. He was low energy, and his checks were red. I took his temperature – 99.9. Not really a fever, not yet. I gave him some Advil and decided to keep an eye on it. My daughter was complaining of a scratchy throat, but her energy level was normal and so was her temperature so honestly, I did not think too much of it.
Meanwhile my grandmother was still labored in her breathing. And she was going to the bathroom way more often than usual. She was in the throes of the COVID symptoms. My dad was finally able to get ahold of the physician’s assistant at her doctor’s office. She asked my Dad to take her to the hospital for another chest x-ray. Meanwhile, I was talking with my friend who is a doctor dealing with COVID patients. She had similar recommendations, if we were concerned, we should take her to the ER.
My Dad and I went to her room to tell her to get ready, we were going to take her to the ER. She started crying and saying “No, no, no, no, no”. She was insistent. We tried to explain that the earlier we could get treatment, the more likely we could save her. She said to us in the clearest Spanish she had “If I go to the hospital, I will die there. If I am going to die, it’s going to be here, at home”. We agreed to a compromise. She could stay home, but if her oxygen levels dropped below 95, we were going without question.
I come out to find my daughter had heard and understood. And told my son. They were both upset and crying. They wanted to know if their great-grandmother would die. Then I noticed my son had that glassy-eyed look again. 100.7. More Advil and more prayers.
The rest of the day was pure stress. We monitored my grandmother’s oxygen levels and my son’s fever every hour. For my son, the good news was that after that last dose of Advil, his fever never returned. My grandmother’s oxygen dropped to a lowest of 94, and then went back up.
We went to bed fairly concerned and stressed and not sure what the days would bring.
But the next day my grandmother woke up feeling better. My son’s fever did not return. Over the two days, all signs pointed to improvements. We started to feel like we might have dodged a bullet.
Day 13 & 14 – Not So Fun Surprises
On Day 13 my Dad was sick of staying in his room, staying in the house, and everything. He hates getting help and was sick of having to have friends deliver groceries and food. His cough had long subsided. My grandmother was almost at 10 days post symptom day 1 and would no longer be considered contagious. He decided to go back to his doctor and get another rapid antigen test so he could “be free”. Imagine his surprise when it came back positive. The doctor prescribed him some medicine, mostly as a precaution since he has a weakened immune system due to the radiation a year earlier. He came home angry and stayed fuming in his room.
Day 14, My husband and I and the kids went for a Rapid test. We had this theory that if we were negative, with my grandmother no longer contagious, we could go home. We were already over a week past the date we were scheduled to fly home. This was the first time the kids did the nose swab. My son was fantastic. My daughter stayed still for the swabbing, then proceeded to cry and protest for a good 15-20 minutes afterward.
We came home and talked about going home in a few days. I got the emails from the lab in my inbox in just a few hours. I read mine first. NEGATIVE. Then my husband – NEGATIVE. Then my daughter. The one who complained for two seconds of a scratchy throat – POSITIVE. My son – POSITIVE.
I have to say when I saw those results a bunch of things went through my mind. I’ll admit a part of me wanted to slap N95s on them, get on a plane that day and get home where we knew there was world class children’s hospital less than 30 minutes from my house. I also thought of all those times I was cuddling on the couch with my son and daughter. Masked, but still in the same space. I thought about them doing that with their father. Both of us have underlying conditions. Now what?
At some point my mind was able to see through the panic – staying was the only thing we could do. Besides the fact that I would never forgive myself is someone got sick and died because we exposed them. Also in New Jersey we had help. The kids were already on day 4 after date of first symptom. My Dad and Grandmother were already feeling much better. If my husband and I got sick, we had plenty of help here.
We pulled the kids into a room and told them the news. There were a lot of tears. They were afraid. There was a lot of fear of passing it on to other people, especially us. There was a lot of upset when we explained that we would need them to stay in the basement, take their meals in the basement, and refrain from hugging their parents. That was the hardest. How do you not hug your parents? Especially during a pandemic.
We had telehealth visits with the pediatrician and our primary care physicians. The good news was that since my Dad, Grandmother and kids all had the same strain, they could stay together. The kids were excited to be able to hug and hang out with them again. It helped a little. My husband and I mostly stayed to our bedroom to avoid all the sick people. When we were not there, we were walking, or constantly masked. I took to going to bed early to get the days to pass sooner.
Day 22 – Time to Go Home!
Using the worst day as Day 1 of symptoms for our kids, and following the CDC guidelines, we figured that the kids were not contagious on Day 22. My husband and I got Rapid tests the day before and came back Negative. We booked an afternoon flight so we could return home to California.
It was a bittersweet day. We finally were able to hug everyone, to hang out without a mask and fear of getting COVID. But we were also tired and ready to come home. It was exactly 13 days AFTER we were supposed to return home. We were ready for our own beds, our own couch, our big screen monitors for work. My husband’s work was picking up and it was getting harder to work in a house full of possibly contagious people. The hardest part was hugging my grandmother good-bye. I knew we had dodged a bullet. She could have been so much worse. But my husband and I decided that we would not fly again until after we had received the vaccine. We could not tell her when we could see her again. And with her health and age, that’s never a given.
We put on N95 masks, gave ourselves the barest minimum of time in the airport, and made sure that everyone was using face shields when they were eating. We had rows to ourselves and kept to ourselves. We let everyone behind us deplane first so we could have plenty of distance from others. My cousin who had been housesitting, drove my car to the airport, left it with the keys in the ignition, and then jumped in his car, being driving from behind by his friend. We waved from a distance. It was sad, but I was not going to risk it after all we had been through.
We drove home, ripped off our masks, and climbed into our comfy beds. We were home. We had made it.
I have thought a lot about what happened. I asked myself, knowing what I know now would I have made a different decision? Even given everything that happened, I think I still would have gone. It is very unlikely that we will be able do this long of a trip in the future. Especially at Christmas time. That answer however, might have been different if my husband or I got it, or if my kids had had more serious cases.
Masks, Disinfecting and Social Distancing: I learned that masks are the #1 way to make sure you stay healthy. This all happened because two people chose not to wear a mask indoors. I am convinced my husband and I were able to stay healthy because we were absolutely religious about the mask on 24/7, as soon as my grandmother was diagnosed. My dad was generally good about masks, but he had to spend a lot of time in close contact with my grandmother due to her disability. My kids wear masks but are not as on top of it as we were, and my daughter constantly had to be reminded to cover her nose.
We also disinfected surfaces constantly and used paper plates and plastic cups. It was terrible for the environment but meant that future people were touching surfaces that had dangerous germs from the mouth. We were careful to never go out. We did grocery delivery, or my cousin would pick it up and bring it to the house. Friends delivered food, tea, and the most amazing Chicken Noodle Soup.
Communication: Text messages and calls were my lifeline. Friends constantly texted me to check up on us, see how we were doing, and see if we needed anything. Teachers were understanding about the situation and made sure to give the kids extra time to do assignments. The school counselor reached out to daughter and did zoom sessions with her to see how she was doing with the isolation. My son’s friends got on a group video chat with him to make sure he was ok and talk him through it. A good friend in California shipped us some stuff we needed from the house and dropped off the school supplies the kids needed for when we returned. Our housecleaner came a few days before we came home and did a deep clean and changed all the sheets, so we had one less thing to worry about when we came home.
Proactive Care: As soon as my grandmother started showing symptoms, the rest of the adults and the kids got on top of their health. At the recommendations of our doctors, the adults did 1000mg of Vitamin C a day, 2000 IUs of Vitamin D, and a Multi-vitamin with Zinc. It was also suggested we do regular walks to keep our lungs moving. We started walking after every meal, sometimes short, sometimes longer, to keep ourselves getting fresh air, some natural vitamin D, and keep our lungs moving. My husband and I discovered we loved the daily walks. It gave us some time to reconnect as a couple. We came home in better shape than when we left.
Luck: In the end, I realize that even after all we went did, we were just incredibly lucky. My husband and I managed to stay negative. No one had a serious case. Even my grandmother pulled through after that day and was back in the kitchen just as soon as we told her she was not contagious anymore. It could have been so much worse. We know many people who have had it much worse. We know of those who did not make it. We also had free lodging and plenty of family and help around. We could stay as long as we needed. Sure, it was hard, but it was possible. But it made us realize that any weekend trips or vacations we hoped for in the beginning of the year were going to need to be put on hold. We will not fly again without the vaccine. We will not do anything that involves being around people. We do not even want to meet up with people at the park until the numbers come down. I have seen a glimpse and I am no in no rush to see if it can be worse.
The end is in sight. And the world will eventually open again. There will be a day to travel and explore. But today is not that day. Immigration is now requiring a negative PCR test to return to the United States. It was 22 days from exposure before we could go home. That is almost a whole month. If you test positive away from home, are you in a position where you can stay and hunker down for a month? These are the things you need to factor into your decision making. We knew it was a possibility, and we knew that if we had to, we could stay. But I could not in good conscience say its’ fine to go to a resort or Disney World or even a normal vacation. We spent most of our vacation inside with family and we still were exposed. If it can happen with so many precautions that we took, it can happen anywhere. So be safe and be aware.
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* Starred Photos take by Atma Photography