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A birthday lunch left 15 Texas relatives battling COVID-19: “Please don’t be like my family”

BY ANDREA SALCEDO

THE WASHINGTON POST

Enriqueta Aragonez is one of 15 family members who contracted the coronavirus after a small indoor birthday celebration earlier this month where no one wore masks.

Enriqueta Aragonez reclined on a hospital bed in Arlington with plastic tubes snaking from her nose and pneumonia in both of her lungs. The 57-year-old had a message for everyone doubting the need for covid-19 restrictions.

“I went to my nephew’s house and loved seeing my family, but now, I’m fighting against covid-19,” Aragonez said in a video message. “Please protect yourself. It’s real.”

Aragonez is one of 15 family members who contracted the coronavirus after a small indoor birthday celebration earlier this month where no one wore masks. Weeks later, in an emotional video shared by the city of Arlington, the family is begging others to avoid gathering with anyone outside their immediate household.

“Of course we regret getting together, but we all have in mind that this could be a lesson for all of us,” Alexa Aragonez, Enriqueta’s daughter, told The Washington Post on Sunday. “One moment of carelessness has cost us a month of peace, has cost us sleep, has cost us laughs, has cost us a lot of money.”

As coronavirus cases in the United States continue to rise in record numbers, the situation in Texas is dire. This weekend, the state’s National Guard deployed a 36-member team to assist in morgues in El Paso, as the state reported 13,763 new cases on Saturday, according to The Post’s coronavirus tracker. At least 20,556 Texans have died of covid-19. People of color, including Latinos like the Aragonez family, who are Mexican American, continue to suffer increased mortality rates from covid-19, a Post analysis found.

Although health officials keep tracking superspreader events at large gatherings like weddings, smaller get-togethers like the Aragonez’s indoor lunch have driven the latest spike of coronavirus cases — a trend that could dramatically worsen, health experts warn, if Americans ignore the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines urging people not to travel for the holidays this year.

On Nov. 1, one of her cousins texted a group of relatives inviting them to his house for an impromptu and belated birthday celebration. “You wanna come over for fajitas?” he asked.

The Aragonez family had all agreed at the beginning of the pandemic to avoid any gatherings with people outside of the family, including church services, bars, and indoor and outdoor dining, and also planned to work from home as much as possible, Aragonez said. They also cut down on their usual weekly family gatherings to once-per-month, socially distanced outdoor gatherings.

“Everyone said yes, just because we have all been taking care of ourselves very well since the start of the pandemic,” Aragonez said of her cousin’s invitation. “… Our family put a strong emphasis of taking care of yourself every day so that we could see each other with more peace and not be scared of contracting covid-19.”

Eight members of the Aragonez family drove from Arlington to Fort Worth for the birthday lunch at her cousin’s house, where four other relatives lived. The plan was never to gather indoors, Aragonez said, but as family members arrived, people congregated in the living room, where for a couple of hours, everyone sat around the couch without masks, sharing fajitas and chocolate cake.

“It really was: ‘Hey, I’m coming in’ and everyone started talking,” Aragonez said. “They naturally gravitated to the living room. … It was not like we were, ‘Let’s all hang out inside.’ We fell back into our old habits.”

The next day, one of the cousins who had attended the lunch texted the group. “I did not wake up feeling well,” she wrote. “How are you feeling?”

More and more relatives soon chimed in that they, too, had fallen ill. And within five days, all 12 relatives who had attended the gathering, including four children and a pregnant woman, had tested positive for the coronavirus.

“Everyone. It did not miss a single one,” Aragonez said. “Everyone who went to the event tested positive.”

Three other relatives who didn’t go to the birthday party also caught the virus.

Aragonez’s mother, Enriqueta, had the most dangerous case. On Nov. 12, she was diagnosed with severe pneumonia in both lungs. A day later, she was admitted into an Arlington hospital because she was also coughing blood and the virus had caused damage to her heart. She was there for a week, but has since begun recovering and returned home.

The rest of the Aragonez family, Aragonez said, had more mild cases. Everyone else who tested positive lost their sense of taste and smell, suffered from body aches and migraines, and experienced extreme fatigue.

Aragonez, who works for the city of Arlington’s communications department, thought her family’s firsthand experience with covid-19 could educate others. So she asked her relatives to film short testimonials about their illness and their regret over attending the lunch, which was combined into the clip shared by the city.

“Please don’t be like my family and ignore the CDC guidelines,” she says at the end of the video.

Aragonez said she hopes that her family’s story can help others make a safer choice.

“We need to get creative this holiday season,” Aragonez said. “Find ways to gather virtually and safely. One does not need to be in physical presence of other people to feel closeness. Modifying the way we celebrate holidays this year can guarantee us many more holidays in the future.”

This year, Aragonez and her sister, who has also tested negative for the virus, will cook and deliver meals to relatives who are still recovering and isolating. They will have a Zoom party following the Cowboys football game, she said.

“We followed all the guidelines with the exception of seeing our core family,” Aragonez said. “We are just like any other family that believes that if they keep their social circle small, then we will be safe. Unfortunately, that’s not enough.”