Three family members—two elderly grandparents and a sister undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer—are currently hospitalized.

By Claire Gillespie
June 26, 2020
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As the US continues to ease out of lockdown, it’s natural for people to want to spend time with the family members they’ve had to stay away from for so long. But the coronavirus hasn’t been eradicated, and with socializing comes an increased risk of infection. 

One family in Carrollton, Texas learned this the hard way, when several of them tested positive for COVID-19 after a surprise birthday party on May 30. Local TV station WFAA, which covers news from Dallas, Fort Worth, and North Texas, reported that one of the family members attended the party without knowing they had the virus, and passed it on to seven family members. It continued to spread, and at least 18 relatives became infected with COVID-19.

“It was only a couple of hours,” Ron Barbosa, a family member who works as a volunteer emergency medical technician, told WFAA. “But during that brief time, somehow the other 18 family members are now infected with COVID.”

Barbosa and his wife didn’t attend the party due to concerns about COVID-19, but 25 other family members joined in the celebration, which was for Barbosa’s daughter-in-law’s 30th birthday. "When people started getting sick, we really let everyone have it,” Barbosa said, speaking about himself and his immediate family members who also didn't attend the party. “We knew this was going to happen, I mean, this whole time this has been going on we’ve been terrified."

Among the family members who have the virus are Barbosa’s parents, who are in their 80s, his sister, who's undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer, and two children. While most of the patients are recovering, his parents and sister are still in the hospital; and of the hospitalized family members, Barbosa's father is in the most serious condition, and was close to being put on a ventilator.

After doctors told Barbosa there was a shortage of blood plasma as a treatment for his father, the family started to encourage anyone with COVID-19 antibodies to donate—and it worked: On June 25, Barbosa revealed on Facebook that his father had received his plasma treatment, writing, “Prayers were answered today. Now he needs to get well for mom and the Barbosa Family. Please continue to give plasma after you have recovered from Covid! The waiting list is growing every hour and you will save a life!!” 

Barbosa’s story is a warning to anyone who plans to socialize in large numbers without face coverings and social distancing. Although Barbosa told BuzzFeed News they weren’t 100% sure the virus started spreading at the party, he said it seems likely, based on the time some of his relatives first started noticing symptoms.

Barbosa also told Buzzfeed News that he thinks his nephew, who hosted the party with his wife, was first exposed to the coronavirus at work, adding that he had a cough on the day of the get-together. Earlier that day, some of the men in the family went golfing together, which may have been another opportunity for exposure. "Next thing you know, the two nephews that basically live next door to him, they get the same cough and diarrhea, body aches, and they start getting sick," Barbosa said. "By the 6th [of June], there was a lot of symptoms. And by the 9th, people are getting really, really bad. And by the 13th, [my family] had to take my sister and my mom to the hospital."

Barbosa and his wife, a doctor, haven’t been seeing many people outside their own immediate household. But he says he knows other people in his family have been socializing a lot more, and possibly not wearing face covering or adhering to social distancing guidelines. “It’s a big loving family that gets together all the time and they have dinner and this just happened to be a surprise birthday dinner,” Barbosa told Buzzfeed News. "The kids feel like they’re bulletproof. [They say], 'We’re safe. We’re going to keep living. We’re going to take trips, even. The airfares are down. We're blasting off!'"

That's a dangerous mindset to have right now as cases continue to rise across the US—especially in highly-populated states like Texas, California, and Florida. Texas specifically has 132,000 cases of COVID-19 as of June 25, according to the Texas Department of State and Health Services (DSHS) And despite the rise in cases, Texas is still in phase three of their reopening plan, according to the Texas DSHS, making it even more important for those who choose to venture outside to continue to wear face coverings, practice social distancing, and practice good hygiene like handwashing. It's also important to continue to limit your time spent around those outside of your immediate household. "A visit of a few people for an hour or two on your patio with social distancing in place and masks puts you at less risk than spending the day with friends attending a birthday swim party, with large numbers, close proximity, and no masks,” Carol A. Winner, MPH, founder of the Give Space movement, previously told Health

After his own family’s experience, Barbosa’s main advice is to “mask up and keep your distance," for those going to see relatives or loved ones from another household. "I want everyone to be with their loved ones. I just want everybody to be cautious and not try to take pictures and selfies with a group of 20 people,” he added. He also urges those who have COVID-19 antibodies to donate their blood plasma to help others.

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDCWHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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