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Families of medically fragile kids swap supplies as coronavirus creates shortages

Networks of parents are trading boxes of face masks for bottles of Purell.
Patrick, Jessica and Lily Wolff share a happy moment at home in Champaign, Illinois. Lily was born at 24 weeks gestation and has a fragile immune system. The medical supplies they must use to keep her safe have been sold out because of the coronavirus.
Patrick, Jessica and Lily Wolff share a happy moment at home in Champaign, Illinois. Lily was born at 24 weeks gestation and has a fragile immune system. The medical supplies they must use to keep her safe have been sold out because of the coronavirus.Courtesy Jessica Wolff
/ Source: TODAY

The coronavirus isn’t what’s scaring parents of children vulnerable to infection the most.

Rather, it’s the panicked public buying up hand sanitizer, rubbing alcohol, masks, latex gloves and other items that families of medically fragile kids need to keep their homes safe year-round, but especially during cold and flu season.

Faced with empty shelves and unexpected competition from the masses, these families are turning to each other, creating networks to swap critical supplies and survive shortages in stores.

The coronavirus outbreak has left empty shelves in stores as people hoard masks, hand sanitizer and other medical supplies families of medically fragile children rely on.Courtesy Bree Vasquez

Jessica Wolff, whose daughter, Lily, is immunocompromised because of her early birth, said these impromptu exchanges are popping up out of necessity.

“Everybody is willing to share what they have because we all have to make it through this together,” Wolff, 31, who lives in Champaign, Illinois, told TODAY Parents.

“These items are things we use all day long, every day, just to keep her alive.”

Across the country in Mission Viejo, California, Bree Vasquez never thought she’d have to worry about having enough medical supplies to protect her medically fragile son, Max.

“I’m not any more afraid of the coronavirus than I am of the rhinovirus or the flu,” Vasquez said.

“It gives you peace of mind knowing that you’re not going to be left high and dry without the stuff you need having this really great support group of women that we have.”

Wolff and Vasquez met online and are now part of a tight group of about 20 “trach friends” — parents of children who required a tracheostomy to breathe — who have recently found themselves trading boxes of face masks for bottles of Purell or other items that are no longer available in stores, Wolff wrote in a post for the TODAY Parenting Team.

The families use group text, Instagram direct messages and video chats to let each other know what they need. They’ve seen other small networks of parents in the same situation doing it, too.

Lily’s story

Lily Wolff spent 256 days in the NICU after she was born in 2018. Now at home, she's still highly susceptible to illness.Courtesy Jessica Wolff

Wolff’s daughter Lily was born at 24 weeks gestation in August 2018 due to intrauterine growth restriction, a condition that claimed the life of Lily’s twin.

Weighing just over a pound, the tiny girl was given a 5% chance at life and spent almost nine months in the neonatal intensive care unit before coming home last April.

Her lungs are still so weak that she could easily die if she were to contract the common cold, Wolff said. To keep Lily safe, the family goes into quarantine during flu season — from October to April — and stops germs from spreading at home by using medical supplies, including gloves, hand sanitizer, hospital-grade cleaning wipes and alcohol prep pads.

Lily is doing well and getting ready to walk.Courtesy Jessica Wolff

Those supplies, delivered to the house each month, started being listed as “out of stock” last month.

“When all of this started, in our chat, we started talking about: ‘Does anybody have masks? Is everybody OK on hand sanitizer?’” Wolff said.

“We have no choice but to use these items to keep our kids alive. I don’t think the general public, when they’re clearing shelves of stuff it’ll take them a year to use, (thinks of) our families.”

Wolff is grateful that between her local friends and her friends on Instagram, her family is “pretty set” on supplies for now.

Max’s story

Max Vasquez had pulmonary hypertension and other health issues after he was born in 2018 at 26 weeks gestation.Courtesy Bree Vasquez

Vasquez’s son, Max, was born 26 weeks into her pregnancy in April 2018 and spent seven months in the NICU because of his “super premature” lungs, she said. He no longer requires a ventilator, but any illness is a setback that could threaten his life.

“In November, he got a minor virus and he was back on his vent again 24/7 and he was needing three liters of oxygen just for some minor itty bitty cold,” Vasquez recalled.

The family relies on large amounts of rubbing alcohol and hand sanitizer to keep germs out of the house, but those items started disappearing from stores weeks ago as the coronavirus outbreak grew.

Bree Vasquez holds her son Max, who is now doing well.Courtesy Bree Vasquez

Vasquez was able to get more hand sanitizer only because an “in stock” alert beeped on her phone at 3 a.m. one night and she rushed to order online at that moment.

It makes her feel better to know the parents in her network have her back “100%” if she ever runs out of any necessities.

“If we need any feeding or cleaning supplies, wipes or whatever we might need, we could definitely (ask). We’re helping each other out however we can,” Vasquez said. "We need this to keep our kids safe from all viruses."