October 2021

The Nation Reviewed

Close to home for Katy Gallagher

By Bronwyn Adcock
Illustration by Jeff Fisher
Life in quarantine as COVID-19 hits Senator Katy Gallagher’s family

When news that the Australian Capital Territory had recorded its first COVID-19 case in over a year started whipping around the corridors of Parliament House on Thursday, August 12, Labor senator Katy Gallagher suspected – correctly – that a territory-wide lockdown was just hours away. It was the last sitting day of the parliamentary fortnight and while many of her colleagues began rescheduling flights to get back to their electorates before it began, Gallagher, a Canberran, focused on clearing her office desk and preparing to work from home. When her 14-year-old daughter called from school mid afternoon, anxious after hearing about the outbreak, Gallagher calmed her down. “I said, ‘Evie, we’ll be fine. We’ll just lock down.’” Later, though, she would realise that even as she was saying this it was already too late for Evie, as the teenager had already contracted the disease.

As chair of the Senate committee that had been monitoring the government response to the pandemic, Gallagher had spent the past 16 months immersed in the issue, chairing nearly 50 hearings and listening to hundreds of hours of evidence from ministers and health bureaucrats. Still, when Evie started to show signs of a mild cold that weekend, she didn’t think it could be COVID-19. There were just over half a dozen cases in the territory and none of the exposure sites were places her daughter had been. “I actually thought she had no risk because she goes to school, she comes home. She doesn’t go anywhere else: school, home, school, home.”

On Sunday evening an email came from the school saying it had confirmed a COVID case in a student. Straight away, Gallagher’s partner took both Evie and their 16-year-old son, Charlie, for testing. By Monday, the results were not back, but the family had heard on the school grapevine that a child in Evie’s class had tested positive, and Evie was getting sicker. “She was going downhill, and she was showing all the symptoms of COVID. I thought, Yeah, she’s got it.

On Tuesday, August 17, the ACT recorded 17 new cases, one of which was Evie, who was now seriously unwell. While Gallagher had been expecting it, the call from the health department confirming the diagnosis still hit her like a “bombshell”, as did the realisation of what came next. “I remember them saying she needs to be isolated from the other members of the household and she needs one person to care for her, so you minimise the crossing over. I’m a very health-literate person – I used to be the health minister in the ACT for eight years – but I was completely ill prepared for this.”

Unable to leave the house and with few medical supplies, Gallagher called her pharmacist, who talked her through the protocols of setting up her household – everyone segregated in their own rooms – and organised delivery of a stack of personal protective equipment and disinfectant. Gallagher was the only one who could move through the house – “I was nurse, doctor, parent, cook, cleaner, everything” – dressed in a plastic gown, gloves, goggles, mask and face shield, spraying from a can of Glen 20 every time she entered Evie’s room. Gallagher was terrified that Charlie would also become infected. “I was like, I’m dealing with one sick child, I don’t know where it’s going to end up with her, I really don’t want this to happen to him.”

Gallagher was fully vaccinated, as was her partner. That first night after the diagnosis she was filled with fury, “that red-hot kind of parent angry”, that her children and hundreds of thousands of others had been left exposed by the slow vaccine rollout across the general population and a lack of access for their cohort. That week, the median age of people infected in the ACT was 19.5, with the youngest a three-year-old, and ­children and teenagers were accounting for a third of all cases in New South Wales. Pfizer had been approved for those aged over 12 by the national medical regulator in July, and jurisdictions such as the United States, Canada and Israel had been vaccinating adolescents for months, but in Australia teens were still not included in the vaccination schedule. (This would not happen until mid September.)

“Honestly, there is nothing more stark than looking at the face of a feverish child staring at you with scared eyes to make you realise we haven’t done the best we can here,” says Gallagher.

Evie was intensely unwell all week: bedridden with rolling fevers, a cough, headaches, vomiting, diarrhoea, “brain fog” and a loss of smell and taste. Gallagher monitored her oxygen levels with a pulse oximeter and set up twice-daily telehealth appointments with her GP. “If your kid’s saying, ‘Oh, my chest feels really heavy like someone’s stomping on it,’ that, to me, is pretty alarming, but my GP would look at her and say her breathing’s fine. She could see on a video – she could tell by the colour of her skin – how well oxygenated her blood was, but that comes with experience, doesn’t it? Parents aren’t necessarily equipped with that, and it just breaks my heart to think of all those families that are struggling without that support.”

None of it added up to what Gallagher, from her 24 years of parenting, would describe as a “mild” illness. “A lot of the [health] spokespeople say, ‘Oh, it’s a mild illness in kids.’ I think it’s fairer to say it’s mild COVID in kids, which isn’t necessarily a mild illness. It’s certainly not my understanding of what a mild childhood illness is. I didn’t understand that before. I just don’t think it’s right to sort of trivialise it in children or diminish it because they don’t end up in hospital as much. It’s a really isolating and scary experience for the child or the teenager, and it certainly is for the parent.”

At the end of that first week, Gallagher’s partner also became ill with COVID (they think he became infected when Evie sat in the front passenger seat as they drove to the testing clinic), though he wasn’t sick for as long as his daughter. Charlie, however, continued to test negative.

After 18 days, Evie was finally cleared and considered a “recovered case”, though Gallagher said she “is not quite herself” – she’d picked up an unrelated chest infection and was still sleeping for several hours a day, with unknown long-term impacts. Gallagher, who would still be under quarantine at home for another fortnight, was able to return to her desk in her home office to resume work for the first time since Evie became sick.

At the time of writing it was not clear when the committee would hold public hearings again – the territory was still in lockdown – but she was keen to return to the task of pursuing transparency from the government. “This has real life consequences … I’ve got a new and stronger kind of passion to unlock some of that, because I just think the public deserve to know why they made the decisions they did about vaccines for all of those months. All of those decisions that are directly impacting Evie right now deserve to be flushed out.”

She’s also anxious to know what’s coming next. When will Charlie – having somehow survived three weeks living in a “Petri dish” without becoming infected – get his chance to be vaccinated? And what about the families who don’t have the advantages of hers: a house big enough to isolate in, a GP and pharmacist on call, a guaranteed income while a parent cares for a sick child?

“I don’t think people should be scrambling around, once they’ve got a positive diagnosis, to try and find all the help they can stitch together to look after their kids. I just think people should be better supported. The fact is if we open up at 80 per cent [of the eligible population], which I think everybody wants, to end lockdowns, that will mean a lot more people with COVID, and probably a lot more kids with COVID. So there needs to be a plan about how we’re going to support them.”

Bronwyn Adcock

Bronwyn Adcock is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in The Griffith Review and The Saturday Paper and on the ABC. She is the author of Currowan.

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