MIAMI—On July 7, for the third time in 10 days, 5-year-old Marcellus Baltazar had to go to the emergency room.
Only three days had passed since the boy’s parents brought him home after he received intravenous fluids at Raulerson Hospital—a small, 100-bed medical center in the Florida agricultural town of Okeechobee—because he had not been eating.
During that span, Marcellus, his dad Miguel Baltazar, his mom Kristen Polacik and his baby sister all tested positive for COVID-19. For the most part, they exhibited mild symptoms associated with the disease, like runny noses and fatigue.
But while Polacik, her husband and their now 9-month-old daughter got better, Marcellus kept complaining about pain in the right side of his body, his mother told The Daily Beast. “It was the scariest time as a parent,” Polacik said. “You are watching your child not being able to eat and waking up at five o’clock in the morning with pain.”
The third time, Marcellus was transferred to Palm West Hospital, a nearby facility with a larger number of intensive care beds, where doctors diagnosed him with appendicitis and possible blood clots, Polacik said. “He spent about a week there,” she said. “They put him on blood thinners and a whole bunch of antibiotics.”
Her son has since improved, but after seeing what he went through, Polacik and her husband decided Marcellus, who recently turned 6, will be safer at home doing online classes rather than going back to campus as public schools reopen in Okeechobee County this week. The local school district is offering parents the options of sending their children into classrooms full-time, virtual learning, or a blend of both.
During the first week of this month, Okeechobee County had four consecutive days in which the COVID-19 positivity rate hit more than 16 percent, according to the Florida Department of Health. The World Health Organization has advised governments that before reopening schools and businesses, the positivity rate should remain at 5 percent or lower for at least 14 days. Okeechobee, a county with a population of 42,168, has recorded 1,039 cases since the pandemic began. About 12 percent of people who tested positive were 14 and younger.
“We will do virtual,” Polacik told The Daily Beast. “I don’t want to deal with all that chaos. You can’t expect 6-year-olds to know how to social distance from one another and wear a mask.”
For months, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has waged a public relations campaign to convince parents that it is safe for their children to return to campus. He has consistently argued that a majority of children are unlikely to get very sick and unlikely to become super-spreaders of coronavirus—statements supported, at least to a degree, by studies and health experts. “Children of all ages are susceptible to COVID-19, though thankfully, few develop severe disease requiring hospitalizations and a large percentage are symptom-free,” said Dr. Aileen Marty, an infectious-disease professor at Florida International University in Miami.
But those children who end up in the hospital can develop serious, even deadly, secondary complications from the disease, including heart failure, blood clots and acute kidney injury, Marty cautioned. She also noted parents whose children catch the virus also have to watch for signs that could lead to multi-symptom inflammatory syndrome, or MIS-C, the disturbing illness associated with coronavirus that appears to only affect children. “It’s a small percent, thank goodness,” Marty said. “But even one child with this is tragic.”
Even if the odds are favorable, Polacik’s experience has her warning fellow parents to stay vigilant, she added. “I know everyone is tired of staying and home and wearing masks,” she said. “But this is one of those things that is not going away any time soon.”
Her son’s ordeal began on June 28 after she and her husband started showing signs of being sick, Polacik explained. “We were both snotty, lethargic, and had other cold-type symptoms,” she said. “But my son’s temperature hit 102 degrees.”
During a first trip to the their pediatrician, Polacik said the doctor who treated him diagnosed Marcellus with an infection, but doubted he had coronavirus, Polacik said. “He didn’t get swabbed and when they looked at his immune system, his white blood cell count was high, so yes, he had an infection.”
Marcellus went home a few hours later. The fever broke and he seemed back to his normal self, Polacik said. “All hell broke loose on Wednesday before Fourth of July,” she said. “He was throwing up, he had diarrhea, and he had pain in his side.”
This time, the entire family, including Marcellus’ baby sister, got tested. The results came back positive, Polacik said. When he was sent home, they gave his parents instructions to give him tylenol, according to discharge paperwork shown to The Daily Beast.
Yet, Marcellus’ discomfort only got worse, his mom said, with the appendicitis and possible blood clots emerging as equally terrifying obstacles to his health.
“The doctors couldn’t tell me 100 percent COVID caused it and that it could be a coincidence that he developed both at the same time,” Polacik said. “But from what I have been reading, coronavirus attacks anything in your body.”
There was a similar case involving a young adult in Savannah, Georgia, around the same time Marcellus got sick, Polacik noted. Lyndsey Gough, a 27-year-old television reporter, shared her traumatic experience with COVID-19. She described having severe abdominal pain that made it hard for her to move a few days after testing positive for coronavirus. She was taken to the ER, where she tested positive a second time, and a CAT scan revealed she had appendicitis. Doctors ended up removing her appendix and part of her colon. While any possible links between the two are still decidedly tentative, a medical study published in May examined how doctors treated eight children with COVID-19 who also exhibited symptoms of appendicitis.
Marcellus went home after seven days of isolation in Palm West’s intensive care unit, his mom said. He may still need surgery to remove his appendix. Polacik said she and her husband have, like so many others parents, had long, difficult conversations about what to do when schools reopen. And while Marcellus’ experience pushed them in that direction, they actually made the final decision to do online learning after speaking to her sister-in-law, who is a teacher.
“I asked her how she feels about it, and she is scared,” Polacik said of another conversation with a friend, also a teacher. “It just takes one parent to say, ‘Oh it’s just the sniffles,’ send their sick kid to school, and spread it like wildfire.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify the timeline of the family’s various doctor and hospital visits.