The Obra family
Jasmine Obra believed that if it were not for her brother Joshua, she would not exist. When 7-year-old Joshi realized his parents would not live forever, he sought out a brother or sister so he would never be alone.
By the spring of 2020, between the ages of 29 and 21, Josh and Jasmine shared a condo in Anaheim, California, not far from Disneyland, which they both loved dearly.
The two worked in a closed 14-bed nursing institution specializing in caring for the elderly with cognitive issues like Alzheimer’s, where Jasmine, a nursing student, was headed by Josh, a registered nurse.
Both were tested for COVID-19 on the same day in June.
Both tests were positive.
However, only one of them survived.
While COVID-19 takes on a much higher mortality rate among seniors than young adults, an investigation into the deaths of front-line health care workers by Kaiser Health News and the Guardian has uncovered numerous cases where staff members under the age of The 30-year-olds were exposed to the job and also surrendered.
Among the 167 confirmed deaths of front-line workers, investigated reporters, 21 medical personnel, or 13% of the total, were under 40 years old, and eight (5%) deaths were under 30 years old. The average age of a COVID-19 death in the general population is 78, while the average age of death of health care workers in the database is 57. This is partly because the reporters included only people of working age who were being treated patients during the pandemic – but it is also because, as health workers, they are much more exposed to the virus.
Young health care workers are at a “stage in their careers and a stage in life in which they have so much more to offer,” says Andrew Chan, a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and epidemiologist at Harvard. Medical School. “The lives lost among young people in connection with COVID should be considered something that is unacceptable to us as a society,” he adds.
As cases of coronavirus increase – and the lack of protective equipment such as N95 masks, dresses and gloves – the country’s healthcare workers face a disproportionate risk. Chan research has found that healthcare workers of any age are at least three times more likely to become infected than the general population, and the risk is greater if they are people of color or have to work without adequate personal protective equipment . People of color are also likely to have insufficient access to PPE.
In interviews, relatives and friends of these young victims describe a particular and disturbing grief. Everything lies ahead for these front line workers. They were just starting their careers. Some were still living in the family home; others were expecting to marry or have young children. Some parents of the victims contacted by the Guardian and KHN said they were simply unable to talk about what had happened, so their grief was extraordinary.
Valeria Viveros, a 20-year-old nursing aide, was “barely thriving”, says her uncle, Gustavo Urrea. She made ceviche for her patients at a nursing home in Riverside, California, and Urrea could see her growing significantly in self-confidence. When she first got sick from the virus, she went to the hospital but was sent home with Tylenol. She returned a few days later to an ambulance – her last trip.
“We are all devastated,” says Urrea. “I can’t even believe it.”
Dulce Garcia, 29, a translator at a medical facility in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, died in May. “It just doesn’t feel real,” says friend Brittany Mathis. Garcia was the one who would not let friends paddle if they had too many drinks, and she wanted to go out to dance in bachata, merengue and reggaeton. “There were so many things she had unfinished,” says Mathis.
While people of all ages with underlying conditions such as diabetes and overweight are at higher risk of a severe COVID-19 infection, the specific effects of the virus on young adults are only now becoming clear.
Doctors in New York noticed that more young patients presented with strokes than usual, to the point that “the average age of our patients in the brain with large vessel strokes” – the most devastating type – “has gone down,” he says. Thomas Oxley, a Mount Sinai medical system neurosurgeon. COVID-19 infections cause inflammation, and often blood clots, in the blood vessels as well as in the lungs.
‘It’s too much to think about’
Angela Padula thought she and Dennis Bradt had done everything right.
Padula, 27, and Bradt, 29, got engaged on Feb. 8. She was a special education teacher and he was an addiction technician at Conifer Park, a private addiction treatment facility in Glenville, NY
The Ifts wanted to save for a few years for their wedding, but by early April, they had already purchased their engagement and wedding rings. Bradt, who had the sweetest tooth, had chosen a whirlpool wedding cake.
After the pandemic hit, Bradt started taking a shower when he returned home from work. He and Padula wore masks when they went out, which was usually just for food or gas. They stopped visiting their implicated parents.
On April 5, Bradt came down with a fever, stomach symptoms and achievement and went to the hospital. His COVID-19 test came back negative. Very soon he could not breathe. Another test was positive. On April 16 he was placed in a ventilator. In the process, he suffocated his vomit, which caused his lungs to collapse.
Padula assumes Bradt was infected at work and is not sure if he had enough PPE. Conifer Park did not answer questions, but according to local health authorities, 12 staff members and six patients at the facility tested positive for COVID-19. Padula himself had symptoms so severe that he was taken to the emergency room in an ambulance.
She was not allowed to visit Bradt, and was quarantined alone at home, where she spent her 28th birthday, taking the anxiety medication prescribed by her doctor.
On May 13, as doctors tried to trick Bradt out of the ventilator, he suffered a heart attack, Padula says. She and Bradt’s mother were allowed to say goodbye. But “he was gone by the time we got there,” Padula said in an interview. “He did not look like himself,” bloated and decorated with pipes.
Today Padula is still sick. Pain in the arms, legs and back wakes up at night. She feels like the virus has taken her life.
“I have my days where it’s just too much to think about,” she says. “I will see engaged people on Facebook – it drives me crazy. I want to be happy for them, but it is very difficult for me to be happy. We were planning to have children in two years.”
‘I feel like he’s with me’
Less than two months before Josh and Jasmine Obra fell ill, Josh posted two photos on Instagram: One was a photo of a fireworks display at Disneyland; the other was a photo of herself in medical cleansing, wearing a face mask, giving the sign of peace.
“Heeeeeyo! A minute has passed,” he wrote in the caption. “It has been a difficult month for all of us.” He has worked with a vulnerable population, he said, and “is just exhausting the thought every night when I get home that I may have symptoms the next day.”
Even so, Josh was a helpful, empathetic nurse who “makes things easier for everyone,” says colleague Sarah Depayso. He knew how to talk to patients and was associated with the stress levels of others. “We were so busy, and it was ‘I’ll buy you lunch, I’ll buy you dinner; I’ll buy you boba.’ “
It had been about 35 days since Disneyland closed its gates, Josh remarked in his post. Photos of Josh – the castle of Sleeping Beauty, framed by taboo flowers, or of herself in a little eye-catching Mermaid sweater – and the corn joke tormented her for thousands of followers on Instagram. “He had a way of catching magic,” says his friend Brandon Joseph. The photos were cheerful, like childhood memories.
Josh’s last post was on June 10, announcing that Disneyland planned to reopen in July. At one point, the virus had reached his nursing home, infecting 49 staff members and 120 residents and eventually killing 14 people. Approximately 41% of all U.S. coronavirus deaths are related to nursing homes, where vulnerable people can live in nearby neighborhoods, according to the New York Times.
After doing the virus test on June 12, his health deteriorated. On June 15, he sent the message to Joseph that he could not breathe full air without feeling as if he were being told to chest. On June 20, he clarified that he was in the hospital and that he had a particularly bad case.
The last time Josh spoke to his family, before being put on a fan, was on June 21st. “In our last video together, I was isolated in Anaheim, quarantined, and our parents were home,” says Jasmine. It was Father’s Day, “and I remember crying and crying because that was the reality of what our family was like.”
Joshi’s family was not allowed to visit him at the hospital, and he died on 6 July.
Coincidentally, Josh, like his grandparents, was buried in the same cemetery as Walt Disney – Park Law Memorial Park in Glendale, California.
Before the funeral, Jasmine went to Disney Tomb, she says. “I was like, ‘Hello, Walt. I hope you and my brother found each other.’ “
Every night after he died, Jasmine watched the spectacular Southern California sunsets, peaks and yellow wines that Josh kept turning into his photos. “And every time I feel like he’s with me. I look at the sky and sometimes I start talking to him, and I feel like I’m talking to my brother, and that he’s painting a beautiful sky.”
Alastair Gee is a reporter at Guardian.
Melissa Bailey, Eli Cahan, Shoshana Dubnow and Anna Sirianni contributed to this report. This story is part of “Lost on the Frontline, an ongoing project by guardian and Kaiser Health News (KHN) which aims to document the lives of U.S. health care workers dying from COVID-19, and to investigate why so many are victims of the disease. If you have a colleague or loved one we need to include, please share their story.