Kansas mother grapples with ‘sucker punch’ of 4-year-old’s COVID-19 infection

By: - August 30, 2021 11:56 am

Jenna Sutter Brown appears with her 4-year-old daughter, Hazel, during Monday’s online news briefing with the University of Kansas Health System. Hazel became sick with COVID-19 after attending preschool, the mother said. (Screen capture by Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Jenna Sutter Brown’s 4-year-old daughter couldn’t sleep last week.

Hazel had bad congestion, a barking cough, a fever, and allergy-like symptoms. Her parents didn’t yet know the girl had COVID-19.

“I try hard to listen to her and give her the chance to tell me what is wrong. And so I said, ‘What’s wrong? Does anything hurt?’ And she just looked at me sobbing and said, ‘I don’t know.’ And that’s never happened,” Sutter Brown said. “That’s the night before she was diagnosed. That was one of those, ‘Do I need to call 911? Is she breathing enough?’ ”

Sutter Brown paused in that moment as she realized the need to stay calm and avoid unsettling her daughter. The mother said during a news briefing Monday with the University of Kansas Health System that it felt like a movie. She and her husband, who are both fully vaccinated and live in the Kansas City metro area, had tried so hard for 18 months to keep their child away from the virus, and federal approval of a pediatric vaccine seems so close.

Hazel’s illness developed after attending an unmasked preschool.

“That was a sucker punch that we were not really prepared for,” Sutter Brown said.

The girl is feeling better now, but her illness underscores the threat the virus poses for young children.

Angela Myers, director of the infectious diseases division at Children’s Mercy, says kids are vulnerable to severe illness from COVID-19, even if they have no risk factors. (Screen capture by Kansas Reflector)

Angela Myers, director of the infectious diseases division at Children’s Mercy, said the hospital has treated COVID-19 patients in ages ranging from newborns through 18 years old. There are currently 11 children hospitalized with COVID-19 at Children’s Mercy, including three in the intensive care unit.

Many parents assume if a child is hospitalized, the child must have some sort of pre-existing condition, but that isn’t the case. Myers also pointed out that asthma and obesity “are pretty common these days.”

“We have kids that get admitted to the hospital who have underlying conditions, but also kids that are otherwise healthy with really no huge risk factors,” Myers said.

Already, school districts have had to alter operations because of widespread outbreaks upon the return to school. At the Turner school district in Kansas City, Kan., 23 students and four staff members tested positive in the first week of class. On Friday, the Wellington school district announced it was shutting down until Sept. 7 because of three outbreaks that infected more than 40 students and staff.

Last year, Myers said, there was no question that if kids were in school they were going to wear a mask. Now, she said, people are being less careful and the delta strain of COVID-19 is far more contagious than the original virus.

“Hopefully, kids are being helped with wearing their mask appropriately — by the teachers, by the school staff and administrators, and hopefully by other kids,” Myers said. “Hopefully other kids feel feel competent enough to say, ‘Hey, you need to pull your mask up.’ ”

Some school boards across the state have refused to require face coverings indoors, despite the advice of local, state, federal and international medical experts.

Dana Hawkinson, of KU Health, says a failure to wear masks at school results in home isolation and the further spread of disease in children and their communities. (Screen capture by Kansas Reflector)

Dana Hawkinson, medical director of infection prevention and control at KU Health, said conversations about mitigating the spread of COVID-19 have become about politics and emotions instead of medicine. He said people should consider whether schools can carry on without masking.

“Certainly, from the available peer-reviewed consistent evidence, that answer would be no. A lot of these schools are being shut down now, and quarantined,” Hawkinson said. “That puts kids at home. That increases isolation. So I think it’s just a matter of some people really have to see the changes and the results for themselves. Unfortunately, it will lead to further spread of disease in those kids, but also in that community.”

Myers said children, like adults, can suffer long-term health problems after contracting COVID-19. In rare cases of multisystem inflammatory syndrome, children show mild symptoms from the initial infection, then end up in a hospital four to six weeks later with heart dysfunction. The Kansas Department for Health and Environment has recorded 18 of those cases since the start of the pandemic.

Sutter Brown said the decision to wear a mask is “a lesson in authority.”

“This is what you’re being asked to do,” she said. “It’s not blind obedience, but it’s the best for your community. I want to instill that in my daughter.”

Parents, Sutter Brown said, should know that their choices affect their neighborhood and beyond.

“It’s really important right now to think critically, and to just be empathetic and kind and come to people from a place of understanding and wanting to move forward,” Sutter Brown said.

After her daughter was sick, she engaged a coworker who had refused to get vaccinated in a “nice conversation.” The coworker then went and got one of the free, safe and effective vaccines.

“I count that as a win,” Sutter Brown said, “and if that’s what this was all for, then it was worth it.”

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the Kansas Press Association’s journalist of the year. He has written award-winning news stories about the instability of the Kansas foster care system, misconduct by government officials, sexual abuse, technology, education, and the Legislature. He previously spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. A lifelong Kansan, he graduated from Emporia State University in 2004 as a Shepherd Scholar with a degree in English.

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