(Editor’s note: The names in this story have been changed to provide privacy for the people interviewed. Most are essential workers and expressed fear of retaliation or job loss.)
For Carmen and Ruben Padilla, who work in construction and house cleaning, wearing masks and gloves at work had become second nature. Both their jobs required very little interaction with other people, and they took extra precautions.
“Since that virus came to the United States, I knew it was bad. At stores I tried not to grab things I didn’t need, just what I needed. I saw what I wanted, I grabbed it and then poof, I was done,” said Ruben.
On the July 4, the Padillas decided to leave Tennessee to attend a small family get together in North Carolina. Ruben Padilla called ahead. His brother assured him it was safe to meet since most of the family worked outside and kept to themselves, and it had been months since the family had been able to see each other.
One of Ruben’s brothers, Jose, is currently battling cancer and only left his home for groceries or on walks around the neighborhood. Jose Padilla’s illness made the family reunion even more important, and on that holiday weekend, 10 Padilla family members enjoyed themselves, cooking out and watching the fireworks. The reunion doubled as a birthday party for Ruben’s other brother, Antonio.
No one wore masks as the children played and the grownups caught up on the eventful year of 2020.
“We were 100% sure [family members] were free from the coronavirus,” said Ruben Padilla, adding that no one showed any symptoms.
Carmen and Ruben Padilla went back home the following Monday. By Wednesday, Carmen Padilla felt ill but needed to go to work. She wore a mask as usual when she cleaned houses alongside her friends and coworkers, Miguel and Maria — a married couple who wish to remain anonymous for privacy reasons. Once they finished, all three carpooled back to their homes in Spring Hill, as they always had. Carmen took off her mask in the back seat.
On Thursday, Carmen knew something was wrong. She took a COVID test but was told the results would take three to seven days. Her husband and older son began to complain about headaches and fevers.
Then they received the call from a family member in North Carolina, who informed them that Jose Padilla had been admitted to the hospital for coronavirus.
“We isolated ourselves and I called Maria and told her what was going on. I told her ‘I’m going to get the test but this happened and [Jose] is in grave condition in the hospital with the virus, but more than likely we are infected so you should be on the lookout,’” Carmen Padilla said.
One by one, each family member was tested. Ruben Padilla’s mother, two brothers, sister-in-law and four children all had contracted COVID from one weekend together.
Carmen Padilla and her family learned they had contracted the virus as well, with the exception being the youngest son who was sent to another house for his safety. Their older son’s girlfriend also began to feel ill and subsequently was quarantined from her other family members.
By the next week, Miguel and Maria, Carmen Padilla’s coworkers, felt sick as well. They were told they tested positive for COVID, too.
For the next 17 days, Carmen and Ruben Padilla and their 21-year-old son locked themselves in for quarantine. Interactions with the outside world mostly consisted of the health department calling for a check up. People came by to leave food for the Padilla family but were told to drop it on the driveway for their safety.
“I would tell them ‘I do not want you to come near. Don’t come near,’” Ruben Padilla had to tell visiting friends.
Maria and Miguel experienced a wide range of symptoms in their 14-day quarantine, with Maria losing all sense of smell and Miguel’s entire body aching. Miguel had high fevers of 104 degrees for several days and Maria was terrified he may need hospitalization.
“It’s a horrible disease in the sense that you don’t know what to do. For me it was very sad because I felt if I grabbed anything I would leave it contaminated even if I was washing my hands constantly,” said Maria.
Their adult son refrained from going to work fearing he could spread the infection but soon learned he tested negative. He lived with his parents. Maria asked her son to keep his distance in their two-story home, with him staying downstairs and being completely separated. Maria had to wonder at the irony of the situation since she was cautious to a fault, as she had been told by her son, and wore disposable gloves and masks whenever at the store
“We were exaggerated, and that’s why I couldn’t get it into my head. Why did the virus get to us if we took such care of ourselves?” asked Maria.
The situation quickly worsened for the Padilla family. The men seemed to have experienced the worst, with Ruben Padilla and his son having high fevers for several days.
Ruben’s brother Jose Padilla was placed in an artificially-induced coma for three days.
“To see my son suffer, it makes you think. You feel frustrated because you can’t do anything. You just have to let it pass,” said Ruben.
Carmen and Ruben Padilla and their family are doing better. Ruben Padilla recently returned to work despite being unable to sleep at night.
It's a horrible disease in the sense that you don't know what to do. For me it was very sad because I felt if I grabbed anything I would leave it contaminated even if I was washing my hands constantly. – Maria Padilla
“Your whole system changes,” Ruben Padilla said. “This thing is crazy.”
But everything is now different for the Padilla family. Ruben Padilla now insists that masks are mandatory for his family, and everything is to be disinfected. No more Hispanic greetings with hellos and a kiss on the cheek. No more visiting friends. Nothing will never be the same again, noted Ruben Padilla, because of paranoia of asymptomatic individuals and those who aren’t taking the pandemic seriously.
He adds that he could not economically and mentally support a situation where his family became sick again.
Miguel and Maria were recently told they could go back to work but insist on taking a few more days just to be safe. They’re thankful their symptoms weren’t as severe as many others they know, including a friend who’s contracted the virus and whose father is in the hospital with COVID-induced pneumonia. They’re thankful they were able to isolate themselves before infecting anyone else. The virus stopped with them.
“I do not understand why people don’t put on masks. Simply, if we had taken a little bit of precaution and if Carmen hadn’t taken off her mask, we would not have gotten sick,” said Maria.