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Most stressful time of the year: Colorado's working parents struggle with surge of sick children

Paid family medical leave a "recent right" in Colorado
The most stressful time of the year: Working parents struggle with surge of sick children
Posted at 1:53 PM, Nov 17, 2022

DENVER — Data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) shows respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) hospitalizations are more than double the highest rate they have seen in the last five years. The spike in RSV cases is only adding stress to working parents caring for sick children.

According to those with CDPHE, "data through November 12, 2022 shows there have been 895 RSV-associated hospitalizations reported in the five-county Denver metropolitan area (Adams, Arapahoe, Denver, Douglas, and Jefferson counties) and 255 outbreaks statewide in schools and childcare facilities. Hospitalizations are also occurring earlier than usual in the respiratory illness season."

In a statement, Brian Spencer with CDPHE said:

"We all play a part. Coloradans can help protect hospital capacity and slow disease transmission — everyone should practice good hand hygiene and avoid touching their face. People should regularly wash their hands with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. People who are ill with RSV or other acute respiratory illness should remain home until they are fever free for 24 hours without the use of fever-reducing medications and other symptoms have been improving for 24 hours. What might feel like a mild cold for one person can cause serious illness in another person – especially infants, young children, or older adults. Avoid interactions with people who may be at higher risk for negative outcomes from RSV if you are feeling unwell."

The Chair of Pediatrics for National Jewish Health, Dr. Pamela Zeitlin, said RSV is most severe in young children and people over 65 years old. The virus is normally active in the fall and winter.

“But during the pandemic, it sort of lost its seasonal activity, and there wasn't as much RSV seen in the population or in the hospitals," Dr. Zeitlin said. “Now that we've relaxed our isolation procedures, we're seeing that infection. In the youngest children, the first symptom can be apnea, then a runny nose, cough, wheezing, and eventually, there's so much mucus production, that they really have trouble breathing, and often need to come in and be seen for oxygen or hospitalization.”

Dr. Zeitlin said the infection can last for two to three weeks, but she worries about a contagious period after that, which could be up to 10 days.

“We would like the kids to stay out of daycare while they're still infectious. And so that puts a big strain on parents, because then they have the child care issue as well," Dr. Zeitlin said. "Unfortunately, we have to get through this winter, and hopefully, eventually we'll get back to our normal immunities. And next year hopefully won't be as bad.”

According to Dr. Zeitlin, there are other respiratory viruses circulating in the pediatric population right now, in addition to RSV.

Amy Breaux, a local mother, has three children, and the oldest is 5. All of her children have been sick in one way or another since the start of September.

“I'm definitely stressed beyond belief. You know, I'm not sleeping a ton," Breaux told Denver7.

Her 2-year-old son Andrew was hospitalized at the end of October with a respiratory issue that was not RSV.

“Specifically, being a mom, you have to try not to show the side of you that you're scared," Breaux said in between making dinner on Wednesday night. “I was scared a lot when he was in the hospital because you're watching your 2-and-a-half-year-old son in the hospital, and he's having a hard time breathing, which is essential for life. It's hard. It's hard to watch."

In the midst of taking care of her sick children, Breaux lost her job. She and her husband continued to pay for their daycare because they did not want to lose their spot.

“Families who are in this position, specifically transplants — you're scrambling. You're taking time off work. You're out of PTO. So now, you're just taking days off that you're not getting paid for," Breaux said. “People are really having to pinch pennies. Some people are probably having to find other ways to work, instead of having a regular 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.”

Employees in Colorado have rights that pertain to paid medical leave for either personal health concerns or when taking care of a sick family member.

“As a rule of thumb, it should be 48 hours for someone who's full-time, with three days of paid sick leave for someone who's generally part-time," said Iris Halpern, an attorney at Rathod Mohamedbhai. “Beyond the paid sick leave that workers have access to here in Colorado, there is unpaid leave if you've worked for your employer for long enough, and they're a large enough employer. So that's the Family Medical Leave Act.”

Halpern referenced the Accrued Paid Sick Leave portion of the Paid Sick Leave under the Colorado Healthy Families and Workplaces Act (HFWA). It requires employers provide one hour of paid leave per 30 hours worked, which can add up to 48 hours a year. The stipulation went into effect at the start of 2021, and will continue to be in place past the COVID-19 pandemic.

Halpern also discussed the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which at covered employers gives eligible employees up to 480 hours of family medical leave.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis provided the following statement through a spokesperson related to the rise in RSV cases in Colorado: "The state is working closely to monitor RSV in Colorado and is allocating resources to healthcare providers to ensure people can access information and care if they need it. The Governor encourages businesses to support their workers if they are caring for a young child or relative facing health issues due to RSV. FAMLI benefits, passed by voters in 2020, begin in 2024."

FAMLI is the state-run Paid Family and Medical Leave Insurance program. Employees and employers begin contributing premiums to the program in 2023, and the benefits will be provided by 2024. Most eligible employees could receive up to 12 weeks of leave.