Freddy Campbell, 16, has asthma so severe that he struggles to breathe and sometimes passes out. Regular allergy injections keep his airways open, but the coronavirus crisis has made it harder to get to his doctor at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Six-year-old Madisyn Chalmers, anxious by nature, recently curled into a ball and sobbed for her dad, worried that he’d get the coronavirus while doing his job delivering prescription medications to the homebound all over North Philadelphia.

And for 9-year-old Dean Pagan, who suffered brain damage from lead poisoning at age 6, being out of school has meant that he no longer receives the occupational therapy and counseling his Ambler school provides.

“All of that has stopped abruptly, so for him, there’s no more outlet,” said his mom, Cristine Pagan.

For children already on the fringes — living with poverty, health problems, and special needs — the pandemic has swept them further toward the edge. The upheaval has caused safety nets for the city’s most vulnerable children to fray and in some cases fall away. And parents are left to straddle those gaps with little money.

While children are less at risk from serious complications from the virus, they are just as able to spread it as anyone else. And they rely on adults whose own health conditions or jobs place them at considerable risk.

Experts worry that those in the city’s poorest neighborhoods are more vulnerable, pointing to the fact that far fewer coronavirus tests are being done in lower-income zip codes, according to city testing data. That means people with the virus there are more likely to spread it.

“Public health emergencies affect people on the margins always much more severely,” said physician Richard Besser, former acting director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “Anyone who faces daily struggles — those issues are going to be exacerbated in a time of crisis.”

Asthma, ADHD, and dancing

Before the coronavirus, Freddy Campbell had a standing doctor’s appointment at CHOP’s allergy and immunology division, where he got a Xolair injection every two weeks to prevent asthma flare-ups. Now, staff shortages and limited hours have meant that his aunt Kenya Cannon had to call twice a day for a week before she finally got him an appointment, she said.

Cannon became Campbell’s guardian after his mother died during an asthma attack when he was 10. Two of Cannon’s own five kids have asthma. But Campbell has it the worst, she said.

“He’s passed out on me several times,” she said. “He also has panic attacks because his mom passed away with asthma."

In addition to Campbell, Cannon has four of her children, ages 13 to 21, holed up in her Mantua rowhouse. Her oldest son, 22, lives on his own and works as a manager at Wendy’s.

They leap at the chance to walk the family dog, a Chihuahua named Poppy, or go with Cannon to pick up their school lunches and homework packets on Mondays and Thursdays. Cannon, 40, a crossing guard for the Philadelphia School District, is still getting paid $15.80 an hour for 20 hours a week, although there’s no school. Three of her children have ADHD, and they’re on three different medicines, some of which have been in short supply.

“I have no idea why,” she said. “Everything is kind of at a standstill.”

It took two weeks to get an Adderall refill for Keydre, her 11th grader, who had been working part-time at the new AMC Theater in the Fashion District. Without the medication, he veered from obsessing on the news to panicking about it.

“He was walking around the house saying, ‘What if we don’t recover from this? What are we going to do?’ Like the world is coming to an end,” Cannon said.

Cannon doesn’t allow defeatism. When things get tense, she distracts the kids into doing the Bunny Hop Line Dance in her kitchen.

‘He gets very stressed’

Cristine and David Pagan are both out of work because of the pandemic. Yet they willingly paid $40 for a Just Dance video game to keep their three kids active in their cramped two-bedroom apartment.

Dean, a third grader, struggles with physical coordination, staying focused, and self-control since suffering severe lead poisoning about three years ago — traced to paint chips that fell onto his desk at Watson Comly Elementary in Northeast Philadelphia.

Cristine Pagan holding her son Dean, then 6, in 2018. He has problems resulting from lead poisoning.
JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
Cristine Pagan holding her son Dean, then 6, in 2018. He has problems resulting from lead poisoning.

"We have to keep him extremely distracted and try to keep him busy, and make sure that he not only physically releases his energy, but mentally he can get relief,” his mom said. “He gets very stressed, very tense, easily.”

Just before Dean’s school closed, staff at the Wissahickon School District in Ambler, where the Pagans now live, began to evaluate him for an individualized educational plan (IEP).

“Everything that we have struggled for so long to get for him, the entire process, has been interrupted because of coronavirus,” said Cristine Pagan, 29, who lost her food service job.

“On top of thinking about not only keeping our family safe and healthy, we are thinking, ‘How are we going to make ends meet? Are we going to be able to pay the rent? And are we going to be able to get everything we need for Dean?’ It’s scary. It’s uncertain," she said.

‘Where’s my dad?’

For 27-year-old Melrona Gordon, a single mom who was once homeless, the threat of the coronavirus has only added to her constant financial stress. She feels lucky she can work remotely from her West Philadelphia apartment for a city nonprofit, where she is paid roughly $35,500 a year.

Daughter Madisyn Chalmers typically lives with her father in the Northeast during the school week, but has been staying at her mom’s more often because her father’s pharmacy deliveries put him in contact with so many people.

Madisyn recently woke up in the middle of the night and started sobbing.

“She came into my room crying and saying the coronavirus is keeping her away from her dad,” Gordon recounted. “I just kind of held her next to me and consoled her, and I explained to her that Daddy’s very busy, and he’s doing this good thing. He’s making sure that people can stay alive by having their medications that they need.”

Madisyn, who will turn 7 in August, is normally an anxious and emotional kid, but being isolated and not seeing her friends at school has been “a trigger,” Gordon said.

“She hears about all these people who are dying," her mom said. "And she’s like, ‘Oh my God, where’s my dad?’“