SINGAPORE, Oct 3 — With a newborn baby and a daughter taking her Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) at this time of the year, Madam Siti Hawa had been extra vigilant about protecting herself and her family against the coronavirus, but it still caught up with them in the end.
It infected the two-month-old baby, the 12-year-old taking her year-end examination, Mdm Siti, who is 40, and her 41-year-old husband.
Their other daughters, aged 15 and 10, were spared. Mdm Siti, her husband and their 15-year-old daughter are fully vaccinated against Covid-19.
She said: “We’ve all been extra cautious, practising good hygiene, wearing masks and avoiding crowded places. I’m one of those kancheong (anxious) mums who will take along my hand sanitisers everywhere I go.”
In the past week, Mdm Siti, who works as a bank teller, had turned to social media to seek prayers from friends, saying this was “one tough virus”, that it was “a traumatic experience”, and that she “hoped and prayed” that what her children went through will not happen to others.
How it started
Mdm Siti’s 12-year-old daughter Aqilah Shazwani was “patient zero” in the household, she told TODAY in a phone interview.
After returning home from her PSLE listening comprehension examination on Sept 17, Aqilah developed a mild fever and sore throat.
That day, she had taken a bus to school. Her travel journey involved alighting at a bus interchange to switch to a feeder bus.
At first, they did not think much of the symptoms because the fever was mild.
“Her two sisters caught a viral fever some days back. They tested negative for Covid-19. So, I thought she had caught the same bug from her siblings,” Mdm Siti said.
But when the fever climbed to 38.9°C the next day, they made an appointment at a polyclinic, where the girl underwent a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test and antigen rapid test.
The result for the rapid test was negative.
“Although her PCR result was not out at the time, I thought that she would be okay since the rapid test was negative. She also seemed okay,” Mdm Siti said.
That day, the family had lunch and dinner together, and Aqilah also played with her baby sister.
The next day, on a Sunday, they received a message informing them that Aqilah’s PCR test result was positive for Covid-19.
“We were all stunned,” Mdm Siti recalled. She and her husband panicked while trying to figure out what to do next.
“My biggest worry was my newborn, who is only two months old. We kept calling and leaving voice messages on the hotline of the Ministry of Health (MOH) but could not reach anyone. I think they were overwhelmed.”
They isolated their 12-year-old in one of the three bedrooms in their apartment while waiting for instructions from MOH. Two days later, a swab testing team arrived.
The couple and their other two daughters all tested negative.
However, their biggest fear came true when the test result came back positive for the baby another two days later on Sept 23.
By then, baby Aaisyah was already showing symptoms and Mdm Siti knew something was not normal.
“She had no fever, but she was vomiting, her nose was congested and she was also cranky.”
The worried mum was at a loss as to what to do next.
“I couldn’t possibly isolate myself from the baby as she needs me. I was also breastfeeding her.”
Taking her friend’s and MOH’s advice, Mdm Siti called for an ambulance, which took both mother and baby to the National University Hospital (NUH).
TODAY understands that two-month-old Aaisyah is among the youngest Covid-19 patients that NUH has seen.
The baby was in a vulnerable position.
Dr Liew Woei Kang, medical director of Paediatric Allergy Immunology Rheumatology Centre, said that in general, children tend to have mild Covid-19 symptoms but infants under a year old have a higher risk of severe disease and complications.
“Thankfully, we have not seen long Covid-19 or multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C) among infected children in Singapore as the numbers are small,” he said, adding that infected babies can also pass the infection to adults.
Dr Chan Si Min, head of the division of paediatric infectious diseases at the Khoo Teck Puat – National University Children’s Medical Institute at NUH, said that young children with mild infection are treated with symptomatic medication and monitored closely for any progression of illness.
Mdm Siti said that one of the most heartrending moments was seeing her newborn undergoing repeated rounds of PCR nasal swab tests and having her blood drawn.
“A PCR swab can be painful even for adults, what more a baby with tiny nostrils. My baby cried nonstop. My heart ached so much.”
As if the situation was not stressful enough, Mdm Siti and her husband both tested positive for Covid-19 shortly after their baby was hospitalised.
Mdm Siti, who has underlying chronic conditions such as asthma, diabetes and hypertension, had symptoms of itchy eyes and runny nose. Her husband had body aches and a sore throat.
The mother said that she and the baby stayed together in an isolation room for five days.
“By then, I was emotionally run down.
“For me, I can bear the discomfort of Covid-19, but what made me really miserable and gave me heartache was being separated from my husband and my 12-year-old who were sick at home.
“She is also going through her PSLE and there was nothing I could do to help her.”
Recovery and good news
At home, Mdm Siti’s husband and their 12-year-old daughter isolated themselves in their own bedrooms, while the other two girls slept in one bedroom and held the fort at home.
Mdm Siti said that the “last two standing” who were not sick helped to sanitise the house and handled the household chores, and she was proud of their independence.
After spending five days in the hospital, mother and baby were discharged.
“It’s like a miracle, by God’s grace. I was told that it is a fast recovery,” Mdm Siti said.
“Maybe it was because I breastfed her almost every hour and was also taking some supplements to boost my immune system.”
Dr Liew explained that when a mother is vaccinated against Covid-19, her body would start making antibodies specific to the coronavirus.
“These would pass through breastmilk and provide passive antibodies and protection to the baby. This can hopefully protect the baby from catching Covid-19 and facilitate clearance of infection,” he added.
Another good news was that Aqilah could still take her PSLE after she recovered.
She takes private transport, either by taxi or a private-hire car ride, to sit for the examination papers. On Thursday and Friday, she was placed in a separate room to avoid intermingling with other students.
Students taking the PSLE can continue to sit their exams even if they are in quarantine, as long as results from both a PCR test and an antigen rapid test are negative.
Mdm Siti said that although the ordeal had made her feel anxious and emotionally drained, it opened her eyes to the compassion and kindness of people around her.
After her social media posts, there was an outpouring of support from family, friends and even strangers, some of whom chipped in to deliver meals, groceries and health supplements to the family.
“I was overwhelmed by everyone’s love and concern. If there’s one thing I learnt after this experience, it’s that Covid-19 has made many of us more united. There’s lots of love going around.”
Word of caution for parents with toddlers
Mdm Siti said that her husband and oldest daughter are due to take their swab test next week when their isolation and quarantine order come to a close respectively.
Until now, they have no idea where Aqilah picked up the virus.
“Was it during the bus ride? Or maybe she caught it at the bus interchange or school? I don’t think she came into contact with any positive cases in school.
“My advice for families with babies, toddlers and young children would be to stay at home.”
Though the experience has been painful, being separated from one another has brought the family closer together.
“The kids used to like to coop up in their rooms to play with their phones. In the last two weeks, the house was so quiet and even though they were isolating in their rooms, they could only communicate behind a closed door.
“After all the separation anxiety and missing one another, now they learn the importance of family time — without their mobile phones.
“They told me, ‘I’m not going to spend my time in the room anymore, Mama’,” Mdm Siti said with a laugh.
To reduce young infant’s risk of possible exposure to Covid-19, Dr Chan and Dr Liew advise avoiding crowded indoor areas or confined spaces such as malls.
They also advised adults and teenagers who are eligible for vaccination to get their shots to reduce household exposure for the baby.
“Vaccinate pregnant or breastfeeding mothers and the rest of family members, thus forming a cocoon effect to protect the baby,” Dr Liew said.
Dr Chan said that parents and other caregivers should be careful about hand hygiene when taking care of infants or toddlers.
“Young children may frequently put toys or other items to their mouth, so these should be washed frequently with soap and water. Anyone unwell should perform an antigen rapid self-test at home, and self-isolate away from the child as far as possible,” she added. — TODAY