When a disease is measured by hospitalizations, ventilators and deaths, people who have COVID-19 but are symptom-free might seem like the lucky ones. And there are a surprising number of them: Researchers found that 53 percent of the people who tested positive last month in one Mission Census tract were actually asymptomatic.
Yet while asymptomatic COVID-19 carriers are spared the worst of it, the virus inflicts them with their own kind of misery — emotional and financial — that doesn’t easily go away.
Regina still gets teary when she recalls the moment she learned that her household—four adults and five children—had been exposed to COVID-19. That was on April 13 when a friend — someone, she says, who hangs out often with the family, is nearly a member of the family — dropped by to tell them he had tested positive for the virus.
“It felt like a bucket of cold water had been dropped on all of us,” she says now. “We didn’t know if we would live or die.”
Five weeks later, Regina and her family are very much alive behind the masks they conscientiously wear. Regina, who is 36 and asked that her name be changed to protect her privacy, said she wanted to share her story because she knows many Latinx who choose not to get tested. “They don’t want to say they have COVID and they keep going to work because they need the money,” she says without judgment.
From the start, Regina and her family did everything by the books. The adults had themselves tested at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital the day after they learned they’d been exposed. Within 24 hours they had the results: Regina, her sister, Ana, and her brother-in-law, Jorge, tested positive; her niece, who lives upstairs, tested negative. It was a shock, Regina says. “I honestly felt my body was fine.”
Almost immediately, the check-ins with the Department of Public Health began; eventually, there were twice-daily calls. First, there was a conversation about isolating in a hotel room. But with two rooms on two separate floors, Regina wanted to isolate at home with her sister and brother-in-law, while the niece lived upstairs with the younger children. She has lived in the same dilapidated Mission building for 14 of her 16 years in the United States. She’s raised her children — ages 14, 12 and 10 – here, and watched them thrive at school.
Regina told her employer, a fast-food restaurant. Her latest check, for $118 – already reduced because her hours had been cut back – would be her last for at least two weeks. Her sister and her brother-in-law, who also work in food service, continued to get paid through the quarantine period.
“We felt bad but after we took the test we had to let our work know … even if I needed the work for the money,” she says.
Regina and her family are among the thousands of San Francisco’s “essential” workers who must leave the house to get paid. The need to work outside the home, combined with crowded living conditions, mean that COVID-19 has hit Latinx residents particularly hard. They represent 15 percent of the city’s population, but nearly half of the positive COVID-19 cases, according to the Department of Public Health’s most recent data.
The most difficult part of enduring the isolation was watching her children in the room nearby. “They were stressed out with fear and they couldn’t focus on school.”
And school, she says, is her children’s future. Her niece, who is a student at the rigorous academic public high school Lowell, monitored the children’s online classes. Her daughter, who wants to be a surgeon, will also be attending Lowell in the fall and her acceptance has been a point of pride this spring.
“She wanted to go to that school so bad,” her mother says.
While the children tried to concentrate, the three adults quarantined strictly for seven days and then remained inside for another seven, Regina says. The San Francisco Department of Public Health said it asks residents to follow the guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Since Regina’s case developed, the CDC has updated its recommendation from 7-to-10 days to 10 days after the first symptom.
None of the adults ever experienced strong symptoms. So instead of dealing with high fevers or persistent coughs, Regina and her family spent their time in isolation listening to the Christian singers Christine D’Clario and Ingrid Rosario and reading their bible.
“We are very devoted” to God, she said. “This whole experience has made us stronger.”
They drank ginger and mint tea during the day and a special nighttime tea made of garlic, lemon and honey.
“My niece would cook for us,” Regina said. “She would go get the food from the food bank at Chavez Elementary and use what we already had here … to make us soups, carne asada, beans and rice.”
Although she no longer has to remain quarantined and expects to return to work soon, Regina acknowledges that she’s seeking counseling with the doctor at the Mission Neighborhood Clinic “because it was such a tough experience emotionally.”
She continues to worry about the stigma. “I still don’t want to let my coworkers know I had it when I return to work,” she adds.
Despite what she’s been through — the loss of income and the ongoing emotional stress—she doesn’t hesitate to tell others to do what she did. “I advise people to go get tested,” she says. “Otherwise we can’t really be helpful to our community and the people we work with.”