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Parents feel forgotten with unvaccinated, vulnerable children and dwindling daycare

Kim Duhamel and her son Graham spend time together at their Mount Pleasant home. The 3-year-old is one of millions still not elible for a Covid-19 vaccine in a nation reopening with uncertain daycare. February 2022
Victoria Hansen
South Carolina Public Radio
Kim Duhamel and her son Graham spend time together at their Mount Pleasant home. The 3-year-old is one of roughly 18 million children still not elible for a Covid-19 vaccine in a nation reopening with shuttered daycares. February 2022

3-year-old Graham Duhamel dumps dozens of colorful plastic tubes onto the living room floor of his Mount Pleasant home for his favorite game, Marble Run. Yes, it’s a mess. But it’s also a lesson in problem solving as the curious toddler tries to build hamster like tunnels for glowing marbles to race through.

His mother Kim admits, it’s even harder than it looks. “We’ve never mastered this,” says Kim. Then again, the 39-year-old has been busy trying to master raising a child during a global pandemic. It’s the only world her son has ever known.

Kim says Graham was about to turn two when Covid hit. Instead of the planned celebration with balloons and party favors, the toddler got his first, protective face mask.

Graham Duhamel at age two wears his first protective face mask
Kim Duhamel
Graham's mom
Graham Duhamel at age two wears his first mask

"As a mom, I feel like I've been failing"

Immediately, Graham's daycare closed. Kim and her husband both work and found themselves scrambling to find new childcare while juggling careers, conference calls and quarantine at home.

“It was just balancing in survival mode and honestly as a mom, I feel like I have been failing in all areas, both in work and personally,” says Kim.

Now as much of the nation begins to reopen with vaccinations readily available, parents like the Duhamels feel forgotten. They’re still struggling with how to best protect their children. Roughly 18 million across the country under the age of five are not yet eligible for a vaccine and vulnerable.

“I can’t imagine what COVID would be like for a 3-year-old,” says Kim. “They can’t express that they can’t taste clearly. I’ve never heard my son say he has a headache.”

And Kim says Graham’s daycare still suddenly closes at times as children become exposed. Yet, the family continues to pay the center, in addition to hiring a last-minute babysitter, just to keep it open. It’s their only option as daycares nationwide permanently shutter in droves.

Earlier this month, there was a glimmer of hope as vaccinations for younger kids like Graham seemed close. The Food and Drug Administration considered authorizing Pfizer’s weaker, two -shot dose. But weeks later, health officials changed their minds saying more information is needed.

That doesn’t help ease the fears of parents like the Duhamels who as adults were eager to get vaccinated, but still worry about potential long-term effects for children.

Dr. Elizabeth Mack at the Medical University of South Carolina worries about something else. “What keeps me up at night is vaccine hesitancy,” she says.

Dr. Mack is the Charleston hospital’s Division Chief of Pediatric Critical Care Medicine. She has seen first- hand the toll, the omicron variant especially, has taken on children. Yet fewer than 14 percent of children ages 5 to 11 are fully vaccinated in South Carolina.

As a researcher for a national study on kids overcoming COVID, Dr. Mack is concerned about the long-term effects of the disease, not the vaccine, especially MIS-C; a syndrome that can inflame major organs like the heart, lungs and kidneys.

Dr. Mack wants parents to know; “It is a very real risk for children. Even if they sail through their COVID infection, they could end up incredibly ill with MIS-C.” It is a risk greater, she says, than effects from a vaccine. Dr. Mack also stresses that as the virus adjusts to survive, so must we.

That’s something Kim is learning as she goes, not only navigating parenthood for the first time, but during a pandemic. “Just a lot of unexpected dependencies are thrown at us every day,” she says.

Kim is trying to roll with the challenges. But much like the marbles in Graham’s complex maze, she often feels stuck.

But together, the Duhamels are figuring it out. They have to; to keep Graham safe.

Victoria Hansen is our Lowcountry connection covering the Charleston community, a city she knows well. She grew up in newspaper newsrooms and has worked as a broadcast journalist for more than 20 years. Her first reporting job brought her to Charleston where she covered local and national stories like the Susan Smith murder trial and the arrival of the Citadel’s first female cadet.