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Catching COVID Twice Taught This Large Family Why Vaccines Matter

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Three women, two wearing glasses, look at each other. The woman in the middle waring a purple shirt has her arms on the shoulders of both women and is looking to the right.
Three generations (from left to right) — grandmother Genoveva Calloway, daughter Petra Gonzales, and granddaughter Vanesa Quintero — sit together in their shared backyard in San Pablo on Nov. 3, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

On a Friday afternoon in early October, 8-year-old Maricia Redondo came home from her third grade class in San Pablo with puffy eyes, a runny nose and a cough.

“On Saturday morning we both got tested,” said Vanessa Quintero, Maricia’s 31-year-old mother. “Our results came back Monday that we were both positive.”

Vanessa stared at her phone in shock and called the Kaiser result hotline again, in disbelief.

“This is wrong,” she thought. “I hung up and dialed again. It’s positive. This is wrong. I hung up again. And then I did it again!”

She was freaking out for two reasons. First, her large, extended family fought a harrowing battle against COVID-19 last fall. Four generations live next door to each other in three different houses in San Pablo, all connected by a backyard. The virus traveled fast and furious through their homes this time last year.

Second, Vanessa couldn’t fathom another round of treatment against a more dangerous variant. Delta is currently the predominant variant in the U.S., according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It's twice as contagious and can potentially cause more severe illnesses than previous variants in unvaccinated people.

Three women stand by each other having a conversation on the sidewalk in front of a pink house.
Three generations (from left to right): Vanessa Quintero, Petra Gonzales and Genoveva Calloway talk in front of their side-by-side homes in San Pablo on Nov. 3, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The family’s bad luck was uncanny. Research suggests immunity against a natural infection lasts about a year. And here it was almost exactly the same time of year and the family was fighting COVID again.

“Reinfection is a thing,” said UCSF infectious disease expert Dr. Peter Chin-Hong. “It probably manifests itself more when the variant in town looks different enough from the previous variants. Or enough time has elapsed since you first got it where immunity has waned.”

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He says a second infection is still not common, but doctors are starting to see more cases.

“The second time it was scarier because I'm vaccinated,” said Vanessa. “Her dad's vaccinated. We're protected in that sense, but she’s [Maricia] not.”

Her 8-year-old daughter was too young to qualify for a vaccine. The little girl lay in bed wheezing. Vanessa tripled down on Maricia’s asthma medication and the family isolated themselves inside. Vanessa shuddered at the prospect of telling her mother and grandma about a second round of positive test results.

During a family gathering on Halloween last fall, Maricia complained she wasn’t feeling good. Over the next few days Vanessa, her partner, mother, two cousins, two aunts, an uncle and two grandmothers tested positive for COVID. Eventually 13 family members caught the bug.

It was not long before family members started racing to the hospital.
Vanessa, who also suffers from asthma, was the first person in the family to rush to the emergency room. “I was on the floor,” she said. “I couldn't even say I'm hungry without coughing.”

Then Vanessa’s 51-year-old mother, Petra Gonzales, almost blacked out.

“I got a really high fever,” said Petra. “There were times when I'd fall asleep and I was OK if I didn't wake up.”

A woman wearing red glasses and a pink hoodie stares out a window.
Genoveva Calloway looks out the front window of her home in San Pablo on Nov. 3, 2021. When she had COVID-19, friends and family would stop by to visit from outside the window. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Petra landed in the ER at Kaiser in Richmond with severe dehydration. Soon she heard that her 71-year-old mother, Genoveva Calloway, needed hospital care for dangerously low oxygen levels and was being treated at Kaiser Oakland.

Unlike Petra and Vanessa, who were not admitted for an extended stay at the hospital and slowly recovered at home, Genoveva's condition was critical. She spent day after day under close supervision from doctors and nurses.

“It was really painful not to be able to help my family, because we always help each other,” said Genoveva as her voice cracked with emotion. “We are always there for each other. It was so horrible.”

Finally, after nearly two weeks in the hospital, Genoveva was discharged. She was still connected to an oxygen machine as nurses shuffled her out. When Genoveva and Petra greeted each other on the street, they embraced fiercely.

“She hugged me so tight,” said Genoveva. “I’ll never forget that. We missed each other so much.”

A year later, though, Genoveva is still recovering. She’s now plagued by interstitial lung disease. That’s why another round of the virus is a terrifying possibility.

Fortunately the family’s worst fears did not unfold. Genoveva was out of town when her great-granddaughter, Maricia, brought the virus home, and Maricia herself recovered. And the other adults did not develop symptoms. They credit their vaccinations.

“Each exposure we have, whether it's from the infection or whether it's from the vaccine, improves our ability to combat an infection the next time around,” said Julie Parsonnet, professor of medicine and infectious diseases at Stanford University. But Parsonnet says there are a lot of variables at play. First, immunity wanes. Second, the virus can mutate. Third, vaccines are not foolproof.

“There are certain people, including the elderly, people who are immunocompromised and people on dialysis, who really can't mount a good immune response,” said Parsonnet. “They're always also going to be at risk. So every child getting vaccinated helps protect all those other people in the family that they may live with or their neighbors.”

This is really common where Genoveva lives in San Pablo. The city is a hot spot in Contra Costa County, where 1 out of 11 people have tested positive. At the height of the pandemic, nearly 800 people tested positive every day.  

“Our neighborhood has three, four generations living in the same house,” Genoveva said.

She looks forward to the day when her great-grandchildren and her whole community are finally vaccinated.

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