WASHINGTON – The back door clicked shut behind him and he faced the brick walls of the alley. Roberto, one of tens of millions of newly laid off U.S. workers desperate to make ends meet in the pandemic, struggled with his emotions, upset at being steered to the clinic’s rear exit.
But then fear and sorrow overtook him as the doctor’s final words sank in.
“It’s possible you have the virus,” the doctor had said from under her mask, standing all the way across the room. “You have the symptoms.”
His mind turned to the hundreds of thousands of people already dead of the disease around the world. That may be me now, he thought.
Earlier this month, The Associated Press documented the plight of Roberto, a restaurant cook in his mid-30s, and his wife, Janeth, a restaurant worker in her mid-40s, a Honduran couple now finding it hard to put food on the table for their sunny 5-year-old daughter, Allison.
The couple, who came to the U.S. illegally years ago, are among the more than 36 million workers who lost their jobs in the country’s economic lockdown. Their days since the outbreak's start were spent standing in food bank lines, chasing tips about grocery giveaways and temporary jobs, and sharing some of the meager groceries they managed to obtain with family members even worse off. The AP is withholding their full names and some other identifying information because they risk deportation.
Roberto had gone to the clinic because he thought he had allergies. Janeth, feeling ill, later went in to be tested as well. Days later, the couple’s cellphones rang with the bad news: Husband and wife had tested positive for the coronavirus.
These days, Roberto and Janeth close themselves up in the bedroom of their basement apartment on the edge of D.C., shutting Allison out in hopes of saving her from infection.
With her parents in quarantine, the girl balances on the windowsill outside her parent’s bedroom to play peek-a-boo with them through the window. Other times, she stands with her ear pressed to the closed bedroom door, trying to figure out what her parents are doing. At night, they hear her cry as she sleeps alone.
Each day, Janeth turns to the light from the window and raises her hands in supplication.
What does she pray for? “I want to raise my daughter,” she says. “I want to die in my country, Honduras, someday. It would be so hard, to die here.”
The family is among up to 12 million immigrants in the U.S. without documentation, barred from most federal government aid. That prohibition, health and policy experts say, is counterproductive; if those immigrants remain outside the system, that makes it much harder for them to participate in social distancing, sheltering at home and contact tracing -- measures key to controlling the virus’ spread.
They also are among the very most vulnerable to exposure to the virus, unable to work from home and forced to constantly venture out in search of food. The district's statistics show that Hispanics are dying of the coronavirus at far higher rates than white residents.
At the Upper Cardozo Health Center in northwest Washington, where Roberto received his coronavirus test, members of the hard-pressed medical staff know that telling working-class patients to quarantine often means jeopardizing their means of survival. Staying at home to avoid infecting others can mean families lose their jobs, leaving them unable to pay rent or buy food and medicine.
Dr. Jose Luis Nunez Gallegos, the assistant medical director, explained that clinic workers meant no disrespect in sending some patients out the back door – that procedure was established to minimize the risk of infection those seeking more routine care.
At home, fever set in for Roberto. Janeth’s nose bled, her lungs ached.
She boiled tea with lemons, onions and ginger, but realized she was unable to taste it or smell the over-the-counter salve the couple was using – common symptoms of coronavirus.
The day after Roberto received his diagnosis came a FaceTime call from Janeth’s younger sister, Arely, who is stranded in her Baltimore apartment without a car, with three children under 14.
All had seemed well when Janeth had yet again taken food to her days earlier, greeting her with a hug.
Now, Janeth was shocked to see the image on her phone of her younger sister lying on a bed in a hospital, exhausted and struggling for air.
Janeth recalled the hug, and she blamed herself.
“Don’t feel bad, sister,” Arely told her. “It got us.”
Follow Knickmeyer and Martin on Twitter at @knickmeyerellen and @Jacquelyn_M. For more coverage of the pandemic, visit https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak