Editor’s note: This story is part of an occasional series called “Behind the Mask.” The coronavirus pandemic has upended life as we know it — our workplace, home and play. Yet life must be lived, even through social distancing. Each piece of “Behind the Mask” will explore how people in our community are adapting to their new life post-pandemic. Have a story to share? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cassandra Erese, a Fresno mom of a 3-year-old girl and 7-year-old boy, knew something was wrong when she got a call from her fiancé on June 1. He said their toddler Isabel — who was 2 years old at the time — did not want to eat. When Erese got home from work, she noticed Isabel’s body felt warm.
“As a mom, you know when their temperature is up above the norm,” she said.
Erese gave her daughter Ibuprofen, and the toddler seemed perfectly fine through the rest of the day.
She recalls hearing her daughter cry around 4:30 a.m., but her instant thought was that Isabel was just having a bad dream.
“I tried to close my eyes again,” she said. “But something inside me said, ‘Go get up’.”
Erese found the 2-year-old sitting on the edge of her bed desperately gasping for air and sobbing when she walked into her room. She noticed Isabel’s skin was burning hot, and quickly decided to drive her to the hospital.
“We got in the car and I had my hand in the backseat with her,” Erese said. “I wanted to make sure she was conscious enough to put pressure on my finger.”
At around 5:30 a.m., the family arrived at Valley Children’s Hospital in Madera. They were checked in and while they waited for the doctor, their daughter began gasping for air again. The doctor said Isabel had croup cough, an infection located in the airways that makes it hard to breathe; it is accompanied by a barking cough.
“I asked [the doctor] what the odds were of it being the coronavirus because with everything going on, you just don’t know,” Erese said.
The medical staff said Isabel’s symptoms did not look like COVID-19 and insisted it was croup because of the bark in her cough. The doctor prescribed Isabel steroids and discharged her. The staff still offered to perform the COVID-19 swab test on her daughter and Erese agreed.
“You hear about the tests, and you don’t want to put them through that,” she said. “Just for peace of mind, I went ahead and did it.”
Erese said it was difficult to watch the test — consisting of two nurses, one holding the toddler’s head and body down with her own body while the other inserted the 6-inch swab into both of the child’s nostrils. The toddler squirmed, cried and screamed through the process.
The hospital staff told Erese that unless she heard from them within 24 hours, it was a good sign that Isabel was negative. The family was instructed to head home and isolate in the meantime.
At 2 p.m. that day, Erese got a phone notification through the hospital’s online portal that her daughter’s charts were updated. The results on the portal stated “Standard Value: Not detected Patient value: Detected.”
“Here I am wondering why no one had called me yet,” Erese said. “I didn’t know what the charts meant.”
At around 5 p.m. that evening, Erese decided to call the hospital herself. The staff on the phone told her to not worry because the results on the portal were incorrect and were not ready yet.
At 9 p. m., with still no updates, Erese began to feel an itch in her throat. That was when she received a call.
“When I saw the number pop up, my heart dropped,” she said. “I already knew.”
The hospital confirmed that 2-year-old Isabel tested positive for COVID-19 and the health department would be in contact with the family.
“We played it safe. We did everything we could,” Erese said. “We had friends who were still out partying, and my 2-year-old, whom we kept home all the time, got it.”
By the next day on June 3, Isabel seemed normal again. However, both she and her fiancé began experiencing itchy throats, body aches, and headaches that lasted for over a week. Erese says her headaches turned into painful and unbearable migraines. The family instructed their 7-year-old son to isolate in his bedroom since he was not showing symptoms. However, within four days, he began complaining of his body shivering.
Erese said the health department told her it was unnecessary for the rest of the family to get tested because the likelihood that they were all positive was very high. The parents showed symptoms for a total of eight days while the children only showed symptoms for two.
“I’m so glad the kids didn’t have to feel what we felt because I couldn’t imagine the toll it would take on their bodies,” the mother of two said.
Erese still wonders how her daughter caught the virus.
She suspects that it might have been when businesses started opening up. “You were painted a picture that things were getting better,” she said. “I let my guard down, and I took my daughter to Hobby Lobby and Michaels.”
Erese runs Cassandra Creations, a personalized business from home and needed to make a quick run to these craft stores to purchase material for pending custom orders. That was the only time Isabel was out in public.
“She sat in the cart and didn’t touch anything,” she said. “The only thing I can think of is that the cart was not sanitized properly.”
On July 31, Valley Children’s Hospital confirmed the first COVID-19 related death for a minor. The exact age of the victim was not released but it was confirmed to be a teen with underlying health conditions. In their statement, the hospital said, “it is imperative, now more than ever, for us to all work together to prevent further spread of this disease. Our children deserve no less.” The county has recorded close to 2,000 positive cases for minors. The most common method of spreading the disease in Fresno continues to be through community contact. The Centers for Disease Control states the most common symptoms in small children are fever, cough, or shortness of breath, which were all present with Isabel.
Erese says this experience changed the way they now live during the pandemic. She says she and her fiancé have returned to work but are very careful in sanitizing, wearing a mask and washing their hands. She is an advocate for masks and taking all precautions recommended by the CDC to slow the spread. Erese said she does not believe the city was ready for its reopening and that there should be stricter guidelines for businesses and residents to follow.
“To this day, I still deal with the repercussions of the virus,” Erese said. “I have an old inhaler I started using again because there are days I’m short of breath just walking around at work.” She also experiences brain fog, a wave of confusion and distraction from the tasks at hand, and a heavy feeling of tiredness that was not there before the infection.
Erese says the one thing that helped her the most through the long and painful 10 days was remaining positive.
“I thought to myself, ‘Yes, we have the virus and there’s nothing we can do about it’,” she said. “If I allowed myself to stress about it, it would have consumed us all.”