When Emily Viegas started exhibiting some of the same COVID-19 symptoms that had put her mother in hospital – difficulty breathing, an inability to stand – her father, Carlos, faced an agonizing situation.
He was the only one in his family of four who had tested negative for COVID-19 and was at home in Brampton, Ont., with his two children while his wife was at Brampton Civic Hospital on oxygen. Mr. Viegas was under strict self-isolation orders from public health and wasn’t sure if he should call an ambulance. He also knew Brampton Civic was one of the most strained hospitals in the country and he feared his daughter might be taken to a hospital further away in another Toronto suburb, Oakville. He didn’t like the idea of her being separated from both her parents.
He routinely checked her temperature, gave her Tylenol to bring her fever down, and urged her to drink lots of water and eat some of her favourite foods – hot dogs and multi-grain pasta – even though she didn’t have much of an appetite. She was 13, Mr. Viegas reasoned, and she would probably be back to normal quickly.
The next day, April 22, she became one of the youngest Canadians to die from COVID-19 – and part of a growing trend of younger victims in the pandemic’s third wave.
Severe outcomes from COVID-19 infections remain exceedingly rare in children. Though 208,195 people under 19 have been infected with COVID-19 as of April 23, the majority have had mild cases. In total, 142 have been admitted to ICU and eight have died, according to national statistics.
Though Mr. Viegas was the only one in the family to leave the apartment over the past many months – he was the sole breadwinner and worked at a warehouse – he was somehow the only one spared from COVID-19. His wife was the first one to fall ill, though she stayed at home for a week before getting tested and learning she had the coronavirus. During that period, Mr. Viegas continued going to work and his children occasionally went into their mother’s room to bring her food and water. On April 14, the day after Mr. Viegas’s wife got her test results, she had so much trouble breathing that she was taken to hospital and put on oxygen.
Back at the apartment, Emily had developed a stubborn cough, but otherwise felt well. Well enough to engage in the moody sparring most 13-year-olds have with their parents. Mr. Viegas would tell her to stop playing Minecraft or texting her friends and do her homework.
“No way,” she’d respond, often with colourful language. “Get lost, old man.”
But after a week, as a fever came on and Emily’s breathing became laboured, their father-daughter exchanges shifted.
Mr. Viegas occasionally noticed Emily struggling to inhale, which would cause her to panic, which would only make it harder to take in air.
“It scared me, but I kept telling her, ‘Slow down. Slow your breathing down so you’re not using all the energy you have to get air,’” he recalled.
On April 22, Emily woke up in the bedroom she shares with her younger brother, went to the bathroom, then returned to bed, lying beneath posters of mermaids and characters from the film Frozen. Just after 9 a.m., Emily’s brother noticed she wasn’t moving and raced to get their father.
Mr. Viegas found his daughter laying eerily still, her eyes partly open, and completely unresponsive.
He called 911 and was instructed to give his daughter CPR. When paramedics arrived, they cleared Mr. Viegas and his son out of the room and tried to resuscitate Emily, too, and briefly got her heart beating again, but she still wasn’t breathing. They tried again. After she was rushed to hospital, a doctor called Mr. Viegas and said they would try once more but if they failed, they’d pronounce her dead. Three hours after Mr. Viegas had put his head on his daughter’s chest, he got another call she was gone. Doctors said she not only had COVID-19, but also pneumonia.
“To tell you the truth, it felt real when I found her in bed. I put my head to her chest and I couldn’t feel nothing. No heartbeat. No nothing. No breathing,” Mr. Viegas said.
Sudden deaths in young people have become more common in this third wave of the pandemic. In the first three weeks of April, Ontario’s coroners have seen 25 cases of people in Southern and Central Ontario who have died at home from the illness, some in their 20s and 30s.
The Viegases live in a two-bedroom apartment in a COVID-19 hot spot in east Brampton, a city with a 22-per-cent test positivity rate, the highest in Ontario. That’s in large part because of the high volume of essential workers in the city, many of whom live in crowded housing where it’s difficult to physically distance. Mr. Viegas, 58, got vaccinated on April 12, but his wife, still recovering in hospital, hasn’t received her jab yet.
While a patchwork of mobile vaccination clinics have opened across Toronto hot spots to offer vaccines to anyone over 18, there is only one such clinic housed at a large Hindu temple for hot-spot residents of Brampton – and, technically, it’s in Toronto.
Mr. Viegas’s wife’s oxygen levels are up to 80 per cent now and he’s hopeful she’ll come home soon. Informing her of their daughter’s death was “as hard as it could be,” he said. As Mr. Viegas is still in isolation, the business of sharing the news with friends and making funeral arrangements have fallen to other members of the family.
“I don’t know details. I don’t even know if we’re going to have the viewing or not,” Mr. Viegas said. “And my mother’s not going because she doesn’t want to see her granddaughter in a box.”
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