[This story is part of a series exploring the experiences of students at Santa Barbara High School who have been infected with the virus that causes COVID-19. An introduction to the project and more coverage can be found here.]
Sabrina Cruz’s uncle had been showing symptoms of COVID-19 for a week, but he didn’t test positive until the day after New Year’s. This was a nightmare scenario. Cruz lives in a household of eight people, including her uncle, who are in constant contact with each other. Her uncle self-quarantined in his room. Two days later, her stepdad tested positive. Her grandma had to stay home from work at the hospital because she had been in contact with them. Then Cruz woke up at 4am with a sore throat. She hoped that she had just slept with her mouth open, but a home test quickly revealed the truth: she had contracted COVID-19.
Because her stepdad was quarantined in her room, Cruz locked herself in her brother’s room where her body was overtaken by a fever. The interplay of hot and cold left her sweaty and weak. As the days progressed, her condition worsened. “I couldn’t feel my toes,” she said, “everything felt congested and my chest hurt and so did my throat. And it felt like someone was scratching my throat inside with sandpaper.” In the worst moments, Cruz endured one of the symptoms of COVID-19 that has symbolized this pandemic: “It was just really painful to breathe.”
While her stepdad and uncle experienced similar symptoms, she worried about her younger brothers who had not been vaccinated. In fact, they had been scheduled to get their first doses before COVID-19 upended her family member’s lives. She had also been scheduled to receive her booster dose, but she now has to go through the waiting period that is recommended after an infection. In the end, her mom and brothers did not get infected, but Cruz believes that just highlights the randomness of the virus. Her interactions with her uncle had only been sporadic, but she had been around her other family members for extended periods before she tested positive.
Her absence coincided with finals week for term two, and she found herself in a difficult situation with her teachers. While they all excused her from tests, she was unable to make up assignments she had planned to do before the term ended. Ultimately, she believes her grades suffered because of her illness. With the increased importance of spotless report cards in the college admissions process, Cruz’s experience could reveal serious inequities for infected students. While Cruz recognizes that teachers are dealing with a lot of unknown variables, she just wishes the school would have more empathy for infected students. She said, “I feel like when you get COVID, they’re like, ‘well, it’s your fault.’ They don’t really consider the circumstances of how you got it or what you felt when you had it.”
After testing negative, she still had difficulties breathing for a few days. She returned to a whole new slate of classes and easily readjusted to school, but her harrowing experience has clearly left an impression on her. She is adamant that the school should take the situation more seriously before students get sick. She is incensed when teachers or students do not wear their masks properly in class. She says, “It’s hard to believe people could be so careless about something that literally kills people.” For Cruz, it is personal now too: “I truly felt like I was dying.”