Photo courtesy of Anne Vorrasi

NICU Life In The Middle Of The Coronavirus Outbreak

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Enter hospital, Purell. Press two elevator buttons, exit elevator, Purell. Three entry points later, scrub hands for 20 seconds in the kitchen sink outside the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). Grab some water. Pass through another three sets of doors to reach the front desk. Help myself to a pump of hand sanitizer standing next to the sign-in sheet. Try not to think about the germs festering on the pen. Enter Baby’s room. Remove jacket, strategically place it inside out on the windowsill, which gets (I’m hoping) disinfected daily. Retrieve computer, phone, and chargers. Don’t touch your face. DON’T TOUCH YOUR FACE! Put on gloves. Wipe down everything with hospital-grade sanitizing wipes. Wash hands — to the tune of “Happy Birthday” this time — in the in-room sink. Approach Baby’s crib…

Are you exhausted yet?

Since my 26-week-old fetus checked out of my uterus two months ago, I’ve been hyper-paranoid about germs in general. The slightest tickle in my throat keeps me at home and I wash my hands or disinfect them with hand sanitizer at least 50 times a day. My son’s gestational age is now 35 weeks old, and we’re seeing confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus (the disease known as COVID-19) in the New York City area, adding a new layer of concern for those of us making the trek to visit our babies in the NICU each day.

I’ve asked multiple nurses and doctors if there are any additional precautions I should be taking, and they just stress that I should keep washing my hands and stay away if I don’t feel well. As one nurse put it, your baby is more likely to get the flu or a cold before they get the coronavirus, and so far studies are showing that the disease is less likely to infect children than adults. Of the 31,211 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in China as of February 6, only nine were infants, per a research letter published in JAMA. None of the infants required intensive care or had severe complications.

There is still a lot we don’t know about the novel coronavirus, though, and it’s hard not to be overrun with questions.

Should I be wearing a mask?

No, we’re not telling parents they need to do that. Just keep washing your hands.

Should I come in less often?

Only if you’re coughing, have a fever, or don’t feel well.

The questions keep coming, a constant train of thought.

Should I skip the subway and take a car service in? Wait, an Uber driver just tested positive for coronavirus. Sit or hold the subway pole? Which is least likely to lead to my demise? Should I be washing my coat every night? Can the coronavirus live on your hair? Note to self, put your hair in a tight bun moving forward. Sanitize your hands before you put your sunglasses on. Actually, the hospital is only two blocks away. I don’t need to wear sunglasses. When’s the last time I sanitized my keys?

Even the director of the NICU made bed-to-bed rounds one morning, introducing himself and making sure we’re clear on the policy for bringing in guests — don’t.

My family has been through a flurry of scares recently, from infections to questionable x-rays to fevers to a gazillion apnea episodes (it’s alarming how quickly a preemie baby can turn blue). Truth be told, the thought of my husband or myself getting the virus is even more stressful than my baby getting it. My partner and I would be quarantined, unable to see our baby in the NICU. We’d have no way of getting all the breast milk I’ve been diligently pumping to him. Speaking of, would I have to throw my breast milk out? My daughter would also have to be quarantined. Oh my god, we’d have to be quarantined for two weeks with a 3-year-old…

But of course the hospital staff know that they must exercise caution. Since last week, only parents are allowed to visit the NICU. This edict was issued and enforced as soon as a second case was confirmed in the New York City area. Those of us who are still allowed to enter the unit are screened upon entry. Have you had a cough or fever within the last few days? Have you been informed of the new visitors policy? At least 10 different hospital staff members, from nurses to security guards, have informed me of the new policy and tried to hand me a flyer stating the new rules. Even the director of the NICU made bed-to-bed rounds one morning, introducing himself and making sure we’re clear on the policy for bringing in guests — don’t. As a result, there are fewer bodies moving around the floor, just as there were fewer commuters on the subway during rush hour this morning.

Other than that, NICU life has been pretty much the same. A little bit stressful, sometimes emotional, with some moments of peace. Yes, babies in the NICU sleep and their alarms aren’t sounding off every five minutes — at least on a good day. And it helps that the nurses, whom parents and babies have the most interaction with day-to-day, aren’t panicking. So I’m trying not to, too.

If you think you’re showing symptoms of coronavirus, which include fever, shortness of breath, and cough, call your doctor before going to get tested. If you’re anxious about the virus’s spread in your community, visit the CDC for up-to-date information and resources, or seek out mental health support. You can find all of Romper’s parents + coronavirus coverage here, and Bustle’s constantly updated, general “what to know about coronavirus” here.