San Jose official nearly dies from COVID-19, warns others in East Side
San Jose Planning Commission Vice Chair Rolando Bonilla survived COVID-19 after a week in the hospital. Photo by Sheila Tran.

Rolando Bonilla woke up on a December morning finding himself gasping for air.

“I couldn’t breathe,” the 42-year-old said during a recent phone interview. “Even the act of inhaling was difficult.”

Bonilla, the vice chair of San Jose’s Planning Commission, had gone to bed the night before with a fever and aches. Then walking became a challenging task. Bonilla and his family called a doctor at Kaiser Permanente, who recommended some at-home remedies, but said there’s little they can do.

By the next day, Bonilla’s oxygen levels continued to drop. He landed in the hospital and was kept overnight. What he thought was going to be a one- to two-night stay turned into a weeklong treatment. A strong and healthy person just days prior, Bonilla felt as though he was staring down a path that eventually would lead to his death.

“Nothing prepares you for such a thing,” Bonilla said. “The virus is going to do what it wants to do with you.”

Bonilla believes he contracted COVID-19 from an uncle in his social bubble, who had often helped take care of his kids. His wife had shown symptoms of a fever in early December, but she quickly got better. Their 8-year-old daughter and 7-year-old twin sons were also infected, though they were asymptomatic.

Bonilla and his family were among thousands of people in Santa Clara County who contracted COVID-19 when the county recorded huge spikes in daily cases after Thanksgiving. As of Jan. 30, 1,395 people have died of COVID-19 in the county. The shortage of vaccines and threats from a new virus strain continue to loom.

Bonilla recalled the uncle, who died from COVID-19 complications on Dec. 17, had called them to break the bad news days earlier. He told them he had gotten it from somebody in his circle.

“We told him to not worry about it and to go home to rest,” Bonilla said. “Never thought that we were never going to see him again.”

Perla Rodriguez, Bonilla’s wife, begged Bonilla to go to the ER. “My wife looks at me and says, ‘I can’t lose you too,’” Bonilla recalled. They packed up the van. With their kids in the back seats, Rodriguez dropped her husband off at the hospital, not knowing when they would see him again.

‘A full assault on your lungs’

It had been two days since Bonilla started experiencing difficulty breathing. He limped his way into the COVID-19 emergency tent outside the hospital. A nurse evaluated his condition. “You’re not going home tonight, buddy,” she told him within minutes.

Bonilla was transferred to a room where doctors began pumping him with the antiviral drug Remdesivir and a steroid. The antiviral drug, a treatment that would help avert progression of the virus, kicked in almost immediately, Bonilla said. But the steroid, which should help open up his lungs’ capacity, didn’t work as they had hoped.

“It’s an assault on your lungs that can very quickly turn from flu-like symptoms to life-threatening situations,” Bonilla said.

Because of COVID-19 restrictions, Bonilla had no visitors during his seven-day stay. He slept a lot. Some days, all the energy he could muster up was 5 to 10 minutes of FaceTime with his wife and kids, where he tried to stay positive and put on a brave face.

“I knew that my kids in particular were having a hard time with everything,” Bonilla said. “I knew that every time (my daughter) talked to me, you can feel a little sense of anxiety in her voice.”

Bonilla and the team of doctors at Kaiser had anticipated his condition to improve quickly. Bonilla tried to do breathing exercises and go on walks to improve his lungs’ capacity. He almost fell to the floor.

“You think you’re going to be out in a day or two, and that’s the optimist in you, and then day three, day four, day five, day six,” Bonilla said. The nurses said they were trying their best to treat the symptoms, “but it’s out of their hands.”

Doctors and nurses encouraged him to keep fighting every day during his stay, Bonilla said. But as each day went by with his condition not improving, Bonilla felt as if he was inching closer to a path of “not being able to leave the hospital alive.” One night, in between naps from exhaustion, Bonilla started preparing letters to his wife, kids, family and friends.

“I basically said, ‘Don’t know where this is headed. And I need you all to stay strong. I love you all. … Prepare yourself,’” he said.

A stark inequality in East San Jose

Bonilla came home on Dec. 24 and is slowly recovering. It wasn’t until early January when he could get out of bed. He has gotten back to work, launching a new community COVID-19 relief fund for businesses in East San Jose. At home, his family is still grieving. They watched their uncle’s funeral service on Jan. 8, who they say “left a void” in his family.

Bonilla is still haunted by that first night in the hospital. Looking through the window of his room, “it felt we were in a battlefield,” he said.

“It felt as if people were coming in by the second,” he said “You can see the stress and the tension. You can see some of these people were in a really tough position, and that they may not make it.”

Bonilla remembers praying. “I was praying for them more than I was for me, because I couldn’t get those images out of my head.”

At the end of November and beginning of December, Santa Clara County started recording more daily COVID-19 cases than ever before. In recent weeks, the Latinx community in East San Jose, a neighborhood that Bonilla represents on the Planning Commission, saw the number of cases skyrocket.

The disparity between the group and other ethnicities, a gap that has persisted since the beginning of summer, widened disproportionately during this period. Latinos represent 51.1% of the COVID-19 cases and 28.4% of deaths in the county, though they comprise just 25.8% of the population.

“The reality is we have lost control … that’s the reality of this virus,” Bonilla said. “The medical profession is so overwhelmed, not only by the volume of people but also their inability to directly attack the virus.”

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In East San Jose, a group of five local organizers forming the Si Se Puede! Collective has worked closely to mitigate the spread.

Since December, the group, partnering with the county, started a program to administer at-home COVID-19 test kits and provide information on the virus. The Mexican Heritage Plaza, which has shifted to a testing and food distribution site since August, has also become an information hub for residents in the neighborhood.

“There’s a real level of anxiety and fear that we see,” said Jessica Paz-Cedillos, executive director for the School of Arts and Culture at the Mexican Heritage Plaza. “The pandemic has pulled the blinds on the stark inequality in Silicon Valley.”

Bonilla believes the county can do more to help his neighborhood, but with the ever-changing nature of the pandemic, he doesn’t blame them. He said he hopes his story could be a learning experience for others to take the virus seriously.

“It’s not the flu,” Bonilla said. “It’s the scariest thing.”

Editor’s Note: Perla Rodriguez serves as chair of San José Spotlight’s Board of Directors.

Contact Tran Nguyen at [email protected]ail.missouri.edu or follow @nguyenntrann on Twitter.

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