One Friday afternoon in early October this year, 8-year-old Maricia Redondo returned home from her third grade class in the San Francisco Bay Area with swollen eyes, runny nose and cough.
“Saturday morning we were both tested,” said Vanessa Quintero, Maricia’s 31-year-old mother. “Our results came back Monday, where we were both positive.”
Vanessa stared in shock at her phone and called in disbelief to her doctor’s hotline for test results again. “That’s wrong,” she thought. “I hung up and called again. That’s positive. It’s wrong. I hung up again. And then I did it again!”
She was scared for two reasons. First, her large, extended family had already fought a thrilling battle against COVID-19 last year – in the fall of 2020. The virus had traveled rapidly and furiously through their working-class neighborhood at the time in the East Bay city of San Pablo. Four generations of Vanessa’s family live side by side in three different houses there, all connected by a backyard.
Vanessa was also horrified because she could not foresee another round of treatment against a more dangerous variant than she had encountered before. The pandemic has disproportionately affected Latino families across the United States, and the delta is currently the predominant variant in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is twice as contagious and can cause more serious diseases than previous variants in unvaccinated people.
The family mishap was eerie. Research suggests that immunity to a natural infection lasts about a year. And here it was almost exactly the same time of year, and the family was fighting COVID-19 again.
“Reinfection is one thing,” says Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, Infectious Diseases Specialist and Professor of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. “It probably turns out more when the variant in the city looks different than the previous variants. Or it’s been a long time since you first got it, [and] immunity has diminished. “He says another infection is still not common, but doctors are beginning to see more cases.
Computer models in a recent study suggest that people who have been infected with the virus can expect a re-infection within a year or two if they do not wear a mask or get a vaccination. The results show that the risk of a new match increases over time. A person has a 5% chance of getting the virus four months after an initial infection, but a 50% chance 17 months later.
“The second time, it was more scary because I’m vaccinated,” Vanessa says, referring to the family’s second battle with the virus in October 2021. “Her father is vaccinated. We are protected in that sense, but she is [Maricia] does not.”
Her 8-year-old daughter was still too young to qualify for a vaccine. In the fall, the little girl lay in bed, hissing. Vanessa tripled Maricia’s asthma medication, and her parents also quarantined inside. Vanessa shuddered at the prospect of telling her mother and grandmother about another round of positive test results.
The family’s first match with COVID
During a family reunion in 2020 on Halloween, Maricia complained that she was not feeling well. Over the next few days, Vanessa and Vanessa’s partner, mother, two cousins, two aunts, an uncle and two grandmothers all tested positive for COVID-19. Eventually, at least 13 family members got the virus at the time, and several became quite ill.
Several family members had to be driven to the hospital.
Vanessa, who like her 8-year-old daughter Maricia suffers from asthma, was the first person to need the acute treatment. “I was on the floor,” Vanessa recalls. “I could not even say ‘I’m hungry’ without coughing.”
Then Vanessa’s 51-year-old mother, Petra Gonzales, almost got a blackout.
“I got a really high fever,” Petra says. “There were times when I fell asleep and I was okay if I did not wake up.”
Last year COVID seizure, Petra landed in the emergency room with severe dehydration. Soon she heard that her 71-year-old mother, Genoveva Calloway, needed hospital treatment for dangerously low oxygen levels and was being treated at another hospital throughout the city.
Unlike Petra and Vanessa, who were not hospitalized for a longer stay in the hospital in 2020 and slowly recovered at home, Genoveva’s condition was critical. She spent day after day under the close supervision of doctors and nurses.
“It was really painful not to be able to help my family, because we always help each other,” says Genoveva, while her voice cracked with emotion. “We’re always there for each other. It was so awful.”
Eventually, after nearly two weeks in the hospital, Genoveva was discharged. She was still hooked up to an oxygen machine when nurses pulled her out. When Genoveva and Petra greeted each other on the street, they hugged each other violently.
“She hugged me so hard,” Genoveva says. “I will never forget it. We missed each other so much.”
A year later, however, Genoveva is still recovering. She is now plagued by interstitial lung disease. Therefore, another round of the virus this year is a scary option.
Fewer family members sick a second time – they credit vaccination
Fortunately, the family’s worst fears did not break out. Genoveva was out of town when her great-granddaughter, Maricia, brought the virus home this time, and Maricia herself recovered. The other adults did not develop symptoms – they credit the COVID vaccinations they had been able to get before the delta increase in the autumn. Research published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concludes that vaccines provide better protection against reinfections than a natural infection. However, if a breakthrough infection occurs after someone has been vaccinated, it will act as a natural “booster” and result in hybrid immunity, according to Chin-Hong. He suggests that most patients who are not immunocompromised wait another three months after a recent infection before receiving a vaccine or a booster.
“Every exposure we have, whether it’s from the infection or from the vaccine, improves our ability to fight an infection next time,” says Dr. Julie Parsonnet, Professor of Medicine and Infectious Diseases at Stanford University.
But Parsonnet also notes that there are many variables at stake. First, immunity decreases. Second, the virus can mutate. Third, no vaccine provides 100% protection, and the shots may not be equally protective for everyone.
“There are certain people, including the elderly, people who are immunocompromised and people on dialysis, who really can’t get a good immune response,” Parsonnet says. “They will always be at risk too. So every child who gets vaccinated helps protect all the other people in the family that they live with or their neighbors.”
Multi-generational life is common in the Genoveva community in the Bay Area. And her city, San Pablo, is a hot spot in Contra Costa County, where 1 in 11 people have tested positive for coronavirus. At the peak of the pandemic, nearly 800 people tested positive in the county weekday.
“Our neighborhood has three, four generations living in the same house,” says Genoveva.
She says her latest booster shot gives her more peace of mind. Genoveva is looking forward to the day when her great-granddaughter and the rest of her family are finally vaccinated.