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This Latino immigrant worker is still fighting long COVID

By May 15, 2024COVID-19

Osbaldo Varilla-Aguilar rarely worried about his health. As a construction worker, he had enough gigs to earn more than $500 a week under the table, allowing him to rent a studio for $600 a month with two other Latinx construction workers in San Francisco’s Mission District. Despite working nearly full-time, he was barely able to make ends meet. So, when the pandemic hit, Varilla-Aguilar continued working. He got critically sick in December 2020. To this day, Varilla-Aguilar still wonders whether he got COVID on the job, or at the grocery store.

Either way, it landed him in a coma — for more than three months.

“It was such a difficult time,” said his sister Araceli Aguilar-Perez. “To see him like that, it affected me a lot.” Aguilar-Perez said the doctors recommended disconnecting Varilla-Aguilar from the ventilator after two months. The family refused. Hoping for a miracle, Aguilar-Perez talked to her unconscious brother through a hospital monitor via Zoom calls every week. Then, in March 2021, Varilla-Aguilar woke up. “When I opened my eyes, it felt like a few days [had passed],” said Varilla-Aguilar. “But they told me it had been three months … It was a shock.”

Osbaldo Varilla-Aguilar, 46, puts on the oxygen ventilator that he uses every night in San Francisco, Calif., on Feb. 26, 2024. Photo: Pablo Unzueta for El Tecolote/CatchLight Local

Today, more than three years after he was discharged from the hospital, Varilla-Aguilar still depends on the oxygen respirator next to his bed. He has since moved out from his shared Mission District studio, and lives in Sunnydale in a shared home with other Latinx workers.

He and his housemates are among the community that was hardest hit by COVID in San Francisco: immigrants, especially those working unprotected essential jobs. As the devastating impact of COVID in Latinx communities in the Mission District and Bayview is increasingly documented, the lingering, and sometimes extreme, symptoms of infection are much less understood. 

Weeks after being discharged from the hospital, Varilla-Aguilar noticed his vision was going blurry while waiting at a bus stop. Within four hours, his left eye went permanently blind.

From left: Siblings Araceli Aguilar-Perez, 53, and Osbaldo Varilla-Aguilar, 46, stand inside Aguilar-Perez’s home for a portrait in San Francisco, Calif., on April 25, 2024. Photo: Pablo Unzueta for El Tecolote/CatchLight Local

“[COVID] can cause many things, one of them being thrombosis,” said Dr. Hector Bonilla, a clinical infectious disease expert and associate professor at Stanford University. According to medical research, critically ill COVID patients like Varilla-Aguilar are especially at risk for severe health outcomes like thrombosis, or blood clots. “It can happen any place [in the body],” said Bonilla. “Maybe this can explain what happened in the eye.” 

Combined with his deteriorated eyesight, Varilla-Aguilar also endures fatigue, brain fog and depression, which are among the more common symptoms cited by people who experience long COVID. He said he also never fully recovered the strength he lost during his months-long coma, despite a year in physical therapy. 

“I don’t have the strength that I used to, and I run out of breath when I try,” said Varilla-Aguilar. “So it’s hard finding steady work.” Despite his physical weaknesses, he continues to take on physically demanding jobs like landscaping, and on occasion, roofing gigs. “I have no choice, I need to pay the rent. If I don’t do it, who else is going to help me?”

According to the 46-year-old, doctors have not been able to determine why COVID took an extreme toll on his health. Instead, doctors have prescribed him several prescription pills to help reduce some of his ongoing symptoms. Still, he believes this hasn’t been enough, and that the cost of medication is expensive. His experience is one faced by millions of long COVID patients across the country as researchers continue to look for the underlying causes of the mysterious symptoms.

Osbaldo Varilla-Aguilar, 46, shares his experience with mysterious symptoms during a “Somos Remedios” event inside the Latino Task Force building in the Mission District in San Francisco, Calif., on Jan. 13, 2024. Photo: Pablo Unzueta for El Tecolote/CatchLight Local

Amid medical uncertainty, Varilla-Aguilar, like other sufferers of long COVID, has turned elsewhere for solutions. Previously skeptical of alternative medicine, Varilla-Aguilar agreed to his sister’s “baño de pies” after months of coping with numbness in his feet. The foot bath was infused with herbs like Santa Maria, rue, rose buds and eucalyptus, which his sister blended into a bucket of hot water. The effort was meant to reduce stress and inflammation. After a few treatments, he said he was shocked to have gained back sensations in his feet.

Since then, Varilla-Aguilar uses and advocates for natural remedies rooted in Indigenous practice, including the consumption of teas, herbs, and whole foods. He is also a member of “Somos Remedios,” a Mission-based grassroots research group that documents Latinx solutions to treating long COVID.

Though Varilla-Aguilar now makes his health a priority, he admits that he will never be the same again. “Everyday there is an effort to live, to work, and to have enough money to eat,” said Varilla-Aguilar. “I found [strength] within myself, [when] there was nowhere else to find it.”

Osbaldo Varilla-Aguilar, 46, steps outside of his sister’s home in San Francisco, Calif., on April 25, 2024. Photo: Pablo Unzueta for El Tecolote/CatchLight Local

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