Juan Carlos Chavez
Tampa Bay Times
WIMAUMA — In his State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Joe Biden spoke of a “new moment” where the coronavirus will be more manageable and the need for masks less frequent.
But while much of the nation is eager to turn the page on the disease, many will be living with it for some time as they endure the lingering effects of the virus.
To learn more about this so-called “long haul” phenomenon, the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are spending $1.15 billion on research that is expected to last years. An early study from the University of Alabama estimates that one in 10 people sickened by the virus experience side effects and long-term health problems.
If the research bears out trends noted so far, a disproportionate share of long haulers are likely to be Hispanic. People of Hispanic heritage account for about 19 percent of the U.S. population but 24 percent of all COVID-19 cases and 16 percent of deaths, according to the CDC.
“It is a problem that we suspected at the beginning of the pandemic,” said Dr. Miguel Reina, a professor of global communicable diseases and global health practice at the University of South Florida. Much investigation remains to be done on the demographics of people who suffer lingering effects from COVID-19, Reina said.
Still, U.S. House Democrats Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Don Beyer of Virginia have asked the CDC for a breakdown of long haulers now — by race, gender and age.
Miguel Ramos, 49, is one of them.
A Mexican immigrant who lives in Wimauma, Ramos had worked for 24 years as a security guard at a youth rehabilitation center, with few absences and many volunteer hours to his credit, when he contracted COVID-19 in July.
He spent 45 days in intensive care. He lost 58 pounds and was given just a 40 percent chance of survival. Eight months later, he has trouble moving and sleeping and suffers from fatigue and shortness of breath. His employer kept his job open for months, but, unable to return to work, he was laid off in December.
“Little by little, I hope to improve,” Ramos said. “My family needs me, and I need them.”
One factor in the disproportionate rate of COVID-19 among Hispanics has been misinformation spread in Spanish via social media and the resulting resistance among many to get vaccinated. Reina works with a network of Spanish-speaking health authorities, called Salud Latina USF, who deliver reliable information and promote vaccination among the Hispanic community.
“It was a big mistake,” said Lurvin Lizardo, a housekeeper in Tampa and Honduran community activist who still suffers the effects of COVID-19 after coming down with the virus in August. “Now, if I could turn back time, I wouldn’t have waited that long to get vaccinated.”
Lizardo, 50, spent more than three weeks in the hospital battling a severe lung infection. She spent 20 days on a respirator in intensive care.
She lost her hair and suffers chronic pain, fatigue and dizziness. She left behind the cleaning business she started and the $900 a week it paid. When she was finally able to work again, she had to settle for part-time employment. She struggles to pay rent and utilities and experiences emotional swings. She takes five kinds of medicine a day.
“Life became more complicated than ever,” Lizardo said. “If it was already difficult, imagine now with all these complications. It’s a nightmare.”
Still, she qualified for Medicaid two years ago, and the insurance has covered many of her health costs.
“That came as a blessing to me,” Lizardo said.
Bryant R. Camareno of Carrollwood, a 54-year-old attorney and father of four, came down with COVID-19 last year. Camareno still suffers from fatigue, coughing and joint pain. He’s working from home and only occasionally ventures outdoors for the fresh air.
Camareno, born in Texas to Costa Rican parents, fears getting infected again. After recovering from COVID-19, most individuals will have some protection from repeat infections, the CDC said. But reinfections do occur.
“I liked to travel,” Camareno said, “but since I got sick, things have changed. I am a long hauler.”
For Ramos, the security guard from Wimauma, the return to health has been a slow climb. Each day, he tries to walk a couple of minutes, eat a healthy diet and take care to avoid reinfection.
Ramos remembers the morning of July 4, a Sunday, when he came down with COVID-19. He woke up with a cough and a headache. Minutes later, he was short of breath.
Doctors told him to go back home, it wasn’t serious. Two tests came back negative before a third one was positive.
His wife, Carmen Galarza, 44, was stunned at how events unfolded. Ramos always wore gloves and even two masks while he was working.
“My health was collapsing in days,” Ramos said.
His two oldest children came down with the disease, too, but showed only mild symptoms. They recovered quickly at home.
Now, Galarza is the breadwinner in the family, working for a local nonprofit and trying to build her home-based baking business, Custom Cakes by Carmen. They struggle to pay bills. Ramos lost his health insurance when he lost his job and had to return an oxygen concentrator that helped him breathe.
Then, misery piled upon misery. Ramos tried to apply for Social Security disability benefits a few months ago, only to learn someone had stolen his identity.
“I haven’t been able to get any help,” he said. “It’s very frustrating.”
In September, his sister Maria Luisa, 50, who lived in Texas, died of COVID-19 complications. Last month, his sister Marisol Ramos, 45, of Wimauma, also died of complications from the virus.
Ramos wonders what’s next for him
“Now I feel very weak,” he said. “I’m not the same as before. How long will I continue like this? Nobody knows.”
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