This past Halloween, Linda Diaz questioned whether attending a large family dinner at her mother-in-law’s house would be wise, given that the coronavirus pandemic seemed to be in full resurgence. Her husband, Mario, didn’t see much risk. After all, since his father died of cancer in early July, the extended family had already spent a lot of time together — indoors and without masks.
“We were together for my dad’s wake, my dad’s funeral, we’ve been together once a week since my dad died,” Mario remembers telling Linda. “I think we’ll be fine.”
The dean of student services at Malcolm X College in Chicago, Mario, 44, was well aware of public health protocols and notes that he, his family, his siblings and their families were careful throughout the summer: They washed hands frequently, wore masks in public and limited their contact with others outside of the home. When one sister lost her sense of taste in March, she assumed she had COVID-19 and quarantined. For the first seven months of the pandemic, the rest of the extended family appeared to stay healthy.
But those precautions didn’t protect the family on Halloween night, when 21 of them gathered at Mario’s mother’s house in McKinley Park, without wearing masks, to celebrate the birthday of one of Mario’s nieces. Since that night, at least six people in attendance have so far tested positive for COVID-19. They include Linda Diaz, two of Mario’s sisters, his nephew and his nephew’s girlfriend. Most concerning to the family, however, is Mario’s 75-year-old mother: On Monday, doctors deemed her condition too dangerous to remain at home, and she was admitted to a hospital ICU, where she remained on Wednesday.
Looking back on it, Mario is filled with regret. He believes the party was the cause and now calls it a superspreader event. “Was it worth getting together for dinner on Halloween with my siblings, knowing that this was going to be the outcome?” he said. “No, it wasn’t.”
As Illinois enters a new and dangerous stage of the COVID-19 pandemic, far more residents have either had the virus or know someone who has. These firsthand experiences are shifting attitudes about the disease and how it spreads, in profound and sometimes surprising ways. As Thanksgiving nears, state and local health officials are imploring the public to refrain from gatherings beyond the immediate household.
“Please do cancel your traditional Thanksgiving plans,” said Dr. Allison Arwady, Commissioner of Public Health for the city of Chicago, at a news conference on Tuesday, when 12,601 new cases statewide were reported. Arwady noted that one in 15 Chicagoans now has an “active infectious” case of COVID-19. Experts worry that as numbers climb throughout the U.S., gatherings will accelerate the rise in case counts. That’s what public health experts believe happened in Canada, which celebrated its Thanksgiving on Oct. 12.
Within the Diaz family, the three family members we spoke to say they won’t repeat the mistake of socializing in person until the risk of catching and spreading the disease is much lower. Still, their individual attitudes are more different than you might expect. Linda, for one, is less afraid of COVID-19 now that she’s contracted it and survived.
“I’m still going to be concerned and cautious, but I feel like … it wasn’t as scary [as it could have been],” Linda said. “It didn’t hit [our household] as hard as it could have.”
After the Halloween dinner, three of the couple’s four children exhibited mild symptoms of a cold, such as runny noses and coughs. Then, Linda fell ill. She got tested for COVID-19 twice, and the second result came back positive.
“I felt terrible for the first five to six days,” she said. A 43-year old part-time photographer, Linda experienced body aches, nausea, diarrhea, extreme fatigue and eventually a loss of taste and smell. Still, she’s grateful that she didn’t require hospitalization. She also noted that pulling through to recovery helped one of her young daughters feel less anxious.
“She had a sense of relief when she saw that it didn’t affect us as bad as it could have,” Linda said.
“I felt so dumb”
But for Eva Diaz, one of Mario’s three sisters and Linda’s sister-in-law, the virus’s seemingly unpredictable toll on people in her family has instilled more fear. Mario and Eva believe another sister caught the virus in March. She was not tested, but they concluded she had COVID-19 because she lost her sense of taste and still has not regained it. Yet another relative who tested positive went to the hospital and ultimately required dialysis.
“I’m more afraid of it now, because you don’t know how it’s going to react in your body,” Eva said. “You don’t know who’s going to end up on dialysis, who’s going to end up in the hospital, who’s going to end up in [the] ICU.”
A 48-year-old bilingual teacher at a charter school in Gage Park, Eva began feeling symptoms just hours after she returned home from the Halloween party at her mother’s house. She woke up in the middle of the night with a debilitating headache. Over the next few days, she experienced gastrointestinal upset and lost her sense of taste.
Despite her symptoms, she looked in on her elderly mother who lived alone and had also become sick.
“She couldn’t walk, she was very weak,” Eva said. Ultimately, she took her mother to Rush Hospital this past Monday evening after her mom’s blood oxygen level plummeted.
Members of the Diaz family still wonder who brought COVID-19 into their mother’s house, and how that person got it. But they also acknowledge that they may never know. Linda Diaz said despite the care they thought they were taking, she realized that they had made a mistake during a call to her doctor’s office. A nurse had asked her whether she’d been around anyone who had COVID-19.
“Once I said it out loud, I felt so dumb. Because they’ve been telling us, over and over again, don’t hang out in large groups,” Linda said. “And we did it anyways.”
For now, the Diaz family faces the sobering reality that the first Thanksgiving since their father died will now be spent apart. Eva Diaz, the only one among her siblings who lives alone, said she knows her family is especially worried about her this holiday season. She provided much of the care to their father in his final days. She still tears up when she speaks of his death.
But Eva said her siblings needn’t worry — she will be fine. Now, she’s advising others to learn from her family’s experience. “One of my coworkers … has a newborn baby and she’s getting together with her family,” she said. “I told her, ‘Don’t do it.’”
Odette Yousef is a reporter on WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her @oyousef.