“Yeah, We Should Have Our Wills Ready”: What Happens When Both Parents Get COVID-19

Two kids sitting on a bed.
Getty Images Plus

Jennifer Banash and her husband thought they had done everything right. The Brooklyn couple had stopped going anywhere but the grocery store weeks ago. They started keeping their 7-year-old daughter at home before schools even closed, and canceled her birthday party. “We were those people who were so annoying, trying to do everything right,” Banash said. On March 13, anticipating a citywide lockdown, they decided to leave New York for their house in Maine. Banash’s husband, Willy Blackmore, wore gloves to operate the gas pump on the drive north. They arrived, exhausted from the trip, and went to bed without grocery shopping. The next morning, he woke up with a fever and a cough. By the evening, she had the symptoms too.

Banash and Blackmore had found themselves in the nightmare scenario for presumably every parent on earth right now: What happens if both parents—or a single parent without a co-parent—get the coronavirus? In normal times, parents can enlist grandparents or nearby friends to help out with child care while they recover from illness. But the coronavirus is particularly dangerous to older people, which puts grandparents out of the picture as caregivers. And any other helpers would be putting themselves and their families at risk of infection. Parents have no choice but to go it alone. It’s a situation that seems both utterly plausible and impossible to plan for.

Reyhan Harmanci and her husband, who also live in Brooklyn with their 4-month-old daughter and 2-year-old son, came down with symptoms on the same day. The couple followed guidance at the time to stay home rather than seek testing, but their symptoms were consistent with the virus. Their cases were relatively mild at first, and they were able to muddle through in their apartment, using Instacart for groceries and hiring someone on TaskRabbit to drop off Tylenol. The experience made Harmanci think about what would happen if, say, they both had to go to the hospital. Maybe they would ask friends who had a child in their son’s day care, on the assumption that both families had already been exposed. “It makes you contemplate what seemed like a ridiculous reaction five days ago, and then seemed reasonable three days ago, and now is like, ‘Yeah, we should have our wills ready,’ ” she said. “It moves so fast.” Over the weekend, after we first spoke, she said her husband’s symptoms got “substantially worse.”

For some parents, having the virus is a reminder that it is necessary in a crisis to rely on help from outside the nuclear family. Joshua Anderton, who lives in a rural area outside Vancouver, British Columbia, told me that his 1- and 3-year-old sons got sick several weeks ago, with what he and his wife assumed was a mild normal bug. Then the parents came down with COVID-19 symptoms. Their doctor said they “clearly” had the virus, they recalled, but said they should stay at home instead of pursuing testing. Ximena Anderton’s symptoms were worse, so Joshua took over parenting duties while continuing to work from home. (Ximena is a stay-at-home mom.) Friends, family members, and their landlord stepped in to drop off deliveries of needed supplies, leaving packages outside their door. Joshua Anderton hopes people who don’t get sick try to think about people in their lives who might need similar help: “We all just have to try to get through it.”

For Banash and Blackmore in Maine, the experience was much more harrowing. Blackmore visited the emergency room (wearing a mask) and received a positive test result within a day. He isolated himself in a room above the couple’s garage, and Banash took over parenting duties. Soon her own symptoms worsened, with Blackmore still in isolation. “It was like being hit by a train,” she said. She had H1N1 when that virus spread in 2009, but for her, COVID-19 was much worse.

Friends dropped off groceries at the foot of their driveway, but they were otherwise on their own. The couple texted each other from their different corners of the house, checking in on each other’s breathing. At one point Banash asked Blackmore what would happen if they got worse. “We can’t think about that right now,” he said. The CDC called and gave them instructions, including to wear masks and disinfect surfaces every day. (“Just imagine being this sick and having to clean your fucking house every day,” she said.) The CDC also told them not to hug their daughter, to prevent infecting her if by some chance she hadn’t caught it yet. When the 7-year-old cried, Banash took off her daughter’s sock and rubbed her foot.

After just under a week, Blackmore was well enough to take over parenting duties. Banash, who has asthma, got worse. When she woke up feeling short of breath one day, they went to an ad hoc drive-thru clinic, where she was tested and cleared for pneumonia. Blackmore is now mostly recovered, and Banash is improving. Her advice to other parents is to make a plan now in anticipation that both parents could be hospitalized. “Talk to people who are not immunocompromised and set them up as potential caregivers,” she said. “There’s no other option. It’s that or foster care.”

For Banash, those early days when she and her husband both realized they were ill now feel like a hazy dream. She barely remembers anything, though she knows she must have cooked for her daughter, bathed her, read to her. “It’s like those old stories about mothers lifting cars off their kids,” she said. “I always thought that was bullshit, but I guess that stuff does kick in when you’re in survival mode.”