The relatives began asking themselves all of the typical COVID questions before they were to gather for a birthday gathering on Nov. 1, weighing the risk versus reward of doing something that — in any other year — they wouldn’t have thought twice about.
Alexa Aragonez, a 26-year-old from Arlington, said about a dozen family members reflected on their recent actions ahead of the indoor celebration. They felt collectively they had been extremely vigilant since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, for the most part going to work and then coming home, believing in masks and social distancing, Alexa said. They decided it would be safe to gather, she said, if they kept it within their small circle. To not get together for a birthday would almost seem unthinkable.
Within their close-knit Hispanic family, Alexa said, events like birthdays are excuses for everyone to be together and to bond over food. Her cousin’s wife, whose birthday they were marking, was going to have fajitas and cake.
Alexa had plans that kept her from the party but dropped off her mother, Enriqueta Aragonez, who’s 57. There were 11 other people at the house, all younger than her mother, including her pregnant cousin and four children under the age of 12. They ate food and shared conversation, not coming in close for any pictures, and left.
It was a couple days later that some people, including Enriqueta, began to feel what seemed like the early symptoms of a cold, or the coronavirus. On Nov. 4, fearing the worst, those at the party and their family members went to get tested.
All 12 people at the party returned positive test results, and the virus had spread to three more people.
Enriqueta was hospitalized for a day with pneumonia and then spent another week at a second hospital as her trouble breathing worsened. No one else had to go to a hospital.
“It’s scary to think that what if my entire family would have had the severe case and every single one of those 15 folks had to go to the hospital,” said Alexa, whose test for the virus came back negative. “One, I would feel guilty for taking resources from people that really do need it, and two, I would be at risk of losing my entire family.”
The family had believed they weren’t engaging in any of the risky behavior associated with the coronavirus, like going out to bars or restaurants, or even congregating in church, Alexa said. Everyone had been growing fatigued of all the isolation, she said, and wanted to see each other like they always have.
But she noted during a telephone interview on Saturday that their story illustrates the way in which the coronavirus can spread within enclosed spaces and then beyond them, no matter how cautious the group feels they have been.
Relatives decided to share their experience with the City of Arlington in the hopes it can help other families avoid a similar outcome, as cases across North Texas have risen to record levels and officials are sounding the alarm on Thanksgiving gatherings. In doing so they owned up to the fact their gathering went against current guidelines from the Centers of Disease Control to limit gatherings to 10 people.
Alexa, who works for Arlington in the department of communication and legislative affairs, had suggested their family’s story could provide an honest and teachable moment and reach residents in Spanish-speaking communities. She and other family members recorded videos speaking directly into the camera, once in English and once in Spanish. They bluntly described the consequences of their gathering and implored people to act differently.
In the final edited videos, which Arlington released on social media on Friday night with the hashtag #ProtectArlington, family members in their own homes plead with people to follow guidelines. A young boy and girl say they have the virus, and the boy asks everyone to “please stay at home.”
Enriqueta, still in the hospital with oxygen tubes coming out of her nose, advises everyone to protect themselves.
“I went to my nephew’s house and loved seeing my family,” she says to the camera. “But now I’m fighting against COVID-19.”
Enriqueta has been recovering at home since last week, not needing oxygen, but still can’t smell anything and has pain in her lungs, Alexa said. Most of the other people with COVID had more mild symptoms, she said, but still suffered from serious fatigue along with aches and pains. The kids developed bad coughs.
The family believes one of Alexa’s cousins and her daughter may have brought the coronavirus into the home, since they were feeling slightly under the weather at the time. They all dismissed it as allergies caused by a high count of ragweed, Alexa said.
The eventual coronavirus spread at the gathering led to more than just physical symptoms for the infected, but feelings of regret and sadness among the entire family. Alexa acknowledges she has felt a version of survivor’s guilt, having dropped her mother off before leaving. Enriqueta, Alexa said, distanced herself from her family as a precaution even before she felt symptoms.
Her sister says in the video, “When we took my mom to the hospital, our hearts broke. We feel guilty for gathering.”
In the end, Alexa told the Star-Telegram, “not everyone is as lucky as my family has been.” She said she doesn’t want anyone to needlessly lose a family member.
The relatives agreed they were willing to share the story — even if it wasn’t good publicity and could attract judgment — so other people can learn, Alexa said.
“We were scared that my mother, the matriarch of the family, was going to pass,” she said. “So I think that fear in our hearts made us want to put an awareness in the hearts of others.”