For Becky Crane, 50, a sixth grade teacher in Coos Bay, the horror of 2020 began a month before the COVID-19 pandemic stuck.
On Feb. 17, her previously healthy son, Blake, 16, died after testing positive for influenza B.
Those who've fought Oregon's COVID-19 restrictions have often downplayed the risks of the coronavirus by likening it to flu. But plenty of families know there are real risks attached to influenza. Last flu season, an estimated 22,000 Americans died of it.
"Unfortunately, we are at all at risk from flu," says Serese Marotta, chief operating officer of the Virginia-based advocacy group Families Fighting Flu. "And we have a lot of stories like Becky's.…Simply put, vaccines save lives."
Flu season continues through March—an added risk atop the pandemic. This year, Crane organized a flu clinic through the Coos Bay School District for students. It vaccinated 200 children attending school via distance learning.
Crane told WW she wants to reach people who, like her, have a favorable view of vaccines but perhaps don't realize the stakes attached to an annual shot.
In this video, she describes the night her son died.
WW: Tell me about Blake.
Becky Crane: Blake played baseball and he played the trumpet in the band. He was caring and kind, although he was pretty shy. He was definitely a homebody and preferred socializing with his family more than outside friends. He feared change. He was afraid of growing up.
He didn't love school, but he loved reading. I had to tell his teachers through the years, "You have permission to take away his books." In fact, when we went through his backpack after he passed, he had two huge books in his backpack. He had to keep two books on hand. And I learned why—his friends knew—he had two: In case one was taken away by a teacher, he wanted to have a backup.
How did you feel about vaccines?
I am pretty much a rule follower. When I would take him to his annual checkups around his birthday every year, they always would tell me to bring him back in October and get his flu shot.
What happened with his flu shot last year was simply we had some changes in our schedule. He had started driving. He no longer needed pickup after school to where I could run him over to get his flu shot after I'd picked him up.
When did he get sick?
We were planning a trip about five hours south for a weekend of snowboarding. It was a Christmas gift from his grandparents, and they were going with us to take him snowboarding.
That next morning, his biggest complaint was a severe sore throat. We decided to take him into the emergency room in hopes [it was] strep throat.
[He didn't have strep.] They told us that he must just have a virus and needs to be put to bed, no snowboarding. We took him back to our motel room and we got him lots of fluids, got him some food. He just wanted to sleep.
[Later that evening] it had progressed to where he had a cough and he was describing a pain in his upper back. My husband and I both were interpreting it as he had pinched a nerve from coughing.
In the middle of the night, he woke up, once complaining of struggling to breathe. The next morning, we decided to get home. He slept the entire way home. We got there, he walked himself upstairs to his bedroom.
[Two hour later] he started throwing up blood. So that's when we decided to take him to our local emergency room. And he walked himself downstairs and he walked himself to our car.
[Doctors] wanted to fly him to a children's hospital four hours away. Once the flight team showed up, which required them to transfer him from the equipment because they had intubated him, they weren't able to get him stable again after they tried to switch the machines.
He ended up going into cardiac arrest multiple times until he passed at 2 am that night.
I don't think I knew healthy children could die of the flu. What warning do you wish had been given to you?
The most important thing that I wish I would have understood was that trouble breathing was a severe warning sign.
It became pretty common knowledge, for a lot of people when COVID came just a month later after Blake's death, that trouble breathing leads to intubation and death.
The worst-case scenario that I knew could happen was people could get pneumonia—to me [that] was something that developed a little slowly.
What stuck in my head was we had been to the emergency room, and this was just a virus. That's what they told us. It's just a virus. Even as it progressed, I think I was hesitant to think about going back to the emergency room because I had just been there.
I can see it very clearly that with the progression that it had taken—the cough and then the back pain even could have been warning symptoms for me, had I known. And, of course, I wish I had known that.
What do you think of when you hear people say COVID is just the flu?
It doesn't mean anything to me. I know the flu is very scary as well.
But I'm also not naive in understanding what happened to Blake; it's rare. A lot of people are able to manage flu without dying and COVID even without dying.
Blake died on Feb. 17, 2020. So it was just one month before the world shut down. Often, people want to blame Blake's death on COVID. What I found is, people were more comfortable with the scary COVID being the cause than the everyday flu.
When they ask, "Are you sure he didn't have COVID?" I say I will never be sure because they didn't test him, but they did test him for influenza. And he was positive for influenza B. And I've been told that it would be really rare to learn that he had two viruses at the same time.
And after this experience and after learning what I've learned, this is a very typical flu story, unfortunately. And so I believe he died from the flu.
Do you have different views of the flu vaccine now?
[Blake] didn't get a flu vaccine last year simply because it wasn't convenient.
A couple sick days from school—that was the worst-case scenario in my mind.
My story speaks for itself. I had to sit in a room with a doctor telling me my son's going to die. And she didn't tell me that it was because he didn't get a shot, but I said, "You mean he's dying from the flu and I didn't get him a shot this year."
Nobody wants to go through that. I just want to share my story with people so people can understand the importance of the flu vaccine.