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Rare access to children in long-term COVID study reveals daily challenges facing families

Danielle Mitchell, right, watches as her daughter, Brooklynn Chiles, 8, is examined during a follow-up visit at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, Feb. 11, 2022. Brooklynn’s father, Rodney Chiles, died of COVID-19 last year and Brooklynn tested positive three times. She is part of a National Institutes of Health-funded multiyear study at the hospital, looking at the impact of COVID-19 on children’s health and quality of life. (AP Photo / Carolyn Kaster)

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A routine photo opportunity at a Washington, D.C., hospital turned into a moving photo and text package exploring the long-term challenges faced by children and their families coping with COVID-19. AP photographer Carolyn Kaster and reporter Colleen Long told the stories of young children whose bouts with COVID have caused searing pain for the youngsters,and baffled and frightened their parents.

More than 12.7 million children in the U.S. have tested positive for coronavirus since the beginning of the pandemic. And although children usually aren’t hit as hard as adults,some do get seriously ill,and some suffer unexplained symptoms long after the virus is gone — what’s often called long COVID. Others get reinfected,while some seem to recover well, only to be struck later by a mysterious condition that causes severe organ inflammation. Doctors at Children’s National Hospital in Washington are studying children to find out why.

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Lexie Stroiney, 6, curls up in a plethysmography chamber during a break in her pulmonary function test at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, Jan. 26, 2022. Lexie had COVID-19 and is part of a multiyear study looking at the impact of COVID-19 on children’s physical health and quality of life. – AP Photo / Carolyn Kaster

Kaster was at the hospital early last November to photograph the first vaccines given to elementary-age children. On that assignment she also found a diverse community of families trying to understand what was happening to their children with COVID,and seeking appropriate care. Many wanted to be part of the hospital study funded by the National Institutes of Health to help find answers for themselves and others in the same circumstances.

Working with the hospital’s public relations team,Kaster contacted families that might want to tell their story. Some chose not to be part of the story; others were still grieving the loss of a parent to COVID-19. But some were more comfortable sharing their lives.

Kaster spent a lot of time not taking pictures,getting to know the families and their struggles,and helping them understand the coverage she had in mind: the impact of COVID and long COVID on the children and those close to them. As a result,she had months of remarkable access to hospital visits,treatments and the home life of three families. “They shared so much,” she said.

One subject,Brooklynn Chiles,8,has had COVID-19 three times; no one can figure out why. Her dad,Rodney,died of COVID when Brooklyn tested positive back in September. Her mom,Danielle,dreads another bout, fearing her daughter could become gravely ill even though she’s been vaccinated. “Is this the moment where I lose everyone?” she said.

Kaster was joined on some visits by Long,who juggled her duties as White House reporter,making time for this story and interviewing the families despite major news coming out of Washington. And when Long couldn’t be present, Kaster fed her descriptive color and photos to capture elements of the story.

Everyone who touched this story,from editors to the digital team,was committed to its success,among them Washington photo chief Pablo Martinez Monsivais,New York-based global enterprise photo editor Enric Marti and medical writer Lauran Neergaard,who put the story in the context of emerging science on COVID-19.

For compelling coverage of the COVID plight facing some young children and their families going into the third year of the pandemic, Kaster and Long are AP’s Best of the Week — Second Winner.

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