By Pam Wright
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Finding out he had COVID-19 was a terrifying moment for 11-year-old Derek and his family.
“All these thoughts go through your mind,” the elementary school pupil said when asked about the experience. “And you can’t do anything about it.”
Derek and his mother Jolene said they both burst into tears when the boy’s positive test result appeared on the public health website.
Because of privacy issues, The Voice is not revealing Derek’s real name or offering any information that would identify the family except to say he attends an elementary school in Chatham-Kent.
Derek’s parents have educated him about the possible effects of COVID-19, so he was no stranger to the science, acknowledging that aside from the obvious inconveniences of having to quarantine and switch to online classes, the virus can harm and even kill people.
“People with COVID-19 can end up in the ICU,” the youth said. “It can ruin your life.”
Infected by a fellow student carrying the Delta variant, Derek and his classmates became part of an outbreak declared in late September.
He was informed that he was a close contact of a case and subsequently tested positive for the virus two days later.
Ironically, Derek did not have close contact with the student who brought the infection to school. He appears to have caught COVID-19 by being in the same room with the contagious student or just by passing by.
Derek’s mother Jolene – who, along with her husband, is double vaccinated – said no one else in the family contracted the illness, including a younger sibling.
Fortunately Derek’s symptoms weren’t serious –similar to a bad cold, with coughing, congestion and fatigue for about four days.
Fallout from the virus brings other lessons.
Keeping family members apart during quarantine, eating separately, parents being forced to work from home, managing individual bedtimes and keeping children entertained while remaining upbeat is beyond exhausting, Jolene explained.
“It’s no fun at all,” she added. “I know it sounds overly dramatic to say, but it was one of the worst weeks ever.”
She hopes parents will be vigilant about screening their children for COVID-19 symptoms, instead of looking the other way, when it comes to coughing and runny noses.
“I think it’s reckless to ignore symptoms,” Jolene said, adding every precaution needs to be taken to stop the spread and keep schools open.
In the “before times” prior to the pandemic, Jolene said, cold symptoms were shrugged off and kids were sent off to school regardless.
“You can’t just brush it off even if it seems innocent,” she added. “Other families are affected and others can get sick.”
Jolene doesn’t have much patience with COVID-19 deniers and anti-vaxxers, given her family’s recent experience.
“The biggest mistake people make is getting tricked into thinking that even if someone gets COVID, it’s not serious.
“It’s still serious,” she stressed. “It’s frustrating, there’s anxiety, there’s tears and there’s anger.
“It completely changes everything,” she added. “You never know how it will go.
“It was a huge scare but we got off really lucky.”
Unfortunately, the virus continues to rear its head locally. As of Oct. 8, there were five outbreaks within the municipality. One was at a long-term care facility, and four were in local schools.
Outbreaks in schools in the first month of the 2021-2022 school year have already outpaced the number of outbreaks for the previous year.
Chatham-Kent Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Colby said the virulent Delta variant is the reason behind the rise in outbreaks, but stringent public health protocols and intense contract tracing are working to contain the virus when it does pop up.
When speaking to reporters at a recent media conference, the education directors of the public and Catholic school boards also stressed safety procedures are working to keep schools open.
Lambton Kent District School Board director John Howitt said current outbreaks are only affecting a small percentage of the board’s 62 schools.
But, he admits that when students are dismissed because of a case or possible exposure, “it is very taxing for the families at home.”
Howitt made the case for getting the shot, noting “vaccination helps keep students in school,” adding students are able to get back to class sooner.
“The protocols we have in place are working,” he said.
Scott Johnson, director of the St. Clair Catholic District School Board, said a lot has been learned since the start of the pandemic, with students able to resume face-to-face learning far more quickly than in the past.
Leveraging technology has also helped, he explained, adding educators can pivot to reach students online when necessary.
Yet, even though top health officials continue to promote vaccination as a way out of the pandemic, uptake among the under 30 crowd in Chatham-Kent remains low, with those aged 18 to 29 having the lowest vaccination rates of all demographics.