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Tampa Bay pastors spread message of ‘faith and prudence’ after surviving coronavirus

In the battle against the coronavirus, Hispanic pastors and spiritual advisers also do their thing: share their survival experiences to educate parishioners.
Pastor Carlos Pagan was hospitalized for 10 days. Doctors gave him a 20 percent chance of survival.
Pastor Carlos Pagan was hospitalized for 10 days. Doctors gave him a 20 percent chance of survival. [ JUAN CARLOS CHAVEZ | Times ]
Published Aug. 17, 2020

PLANT CITY - One month after contracting COVID-19 and recovering in a hospital room, Pastor Carlos Pagan’s breathing is not the same as before.

Sometimes he tires quickly. Sometimes he needs a couple of seconds to catch his breath.

“This is not easy,” said Pagan, 36, who is from Puerto Rico.

Pagan is a husband, a father of four children and the principal pastor of The Nazarene, a Christian church in Brandon with a high concentration of Latino parishioners.

With Hispanics accounting for a disproportionately large number of the most severe cases of coronavirus, Pagan and other local Latino pastors, spiritual advisers and advocates are using their experiences -- which in some cases includes contracting the virus -- to keep their vulnerable congregations and communities safe.

They use social media, community virtual meetings and partnerships with other congregations to keep their members at a distance. Nationwide, Latinos are nearly three times more likely to have died from coronavirus compared to whites when age is taken into account, according to the non-partisan APM Research Lab.

Pagan said doctors gave him a 20 percent chance of surviving after he got sick in July, so he is well aware of the perils.

Related: The Color of Coronavirus

“When I got sick I had thoughts of panic and fear, but in the end I understood that God had other plans for me,” said Pagan. “So it was and that’s my message.”

Pastor Carlos Pagan believes the disease began on July 2 when he felt feverish and had a slight cough. He was treated at Lakeland Regional Hospital
Pastor Carlos Pagan believes the disease began on July 2 when he felt feverish and had a slight cough. He was treated at Lakeland Regional Hospital [ Courtesy C. Pagan ]

Pagan said he did not contract the disease at his church but from a friend who tested positive. By June, Pagan had stopped mass in person as a precaution and reinforced his recommendations through social media to keep his people safe.

“During all this time I have been very responsible with the use of masks, gloves and disinfectants,” said Pagan. “But surprises are never lacking and my illness has been one of them.”

Pagan believes the disease began on July 2 when he felt feverish and had a slight cough. Four days later he was treated at Lakeland Regional Hospital. He was sent home because doctors determined his condition did not require hospitalization. They told him to isolate but it was too late: His wife Karol, 36, and two of their children, Milianys, 14, and Isaiah, 12, had the disease, too, though they suffered only mild symptoms. The youngest, Kaylianys, 4, had a skin rash.

On July 8 Pagan was officially diagnosed with COVID-19. He came down with more fever and could hardly breathe on July 10. That night his wife called an ambulance.

"I was literally suffocating," Pagan said. "I couldn't speak."

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Pagan was hospitalized for 10 days. His lungs were compromised with severe pneumonia. One doctor told him intubation was his last chance.

“They told me that I had no other options and that my health was getting worse,” Pagan said. “It was a very strong blow because you think something like this will never happen to you.”

Pagan considers his recovery a miracle because hours before his intubation, a nurse started to work with him to improve his breathing. The intubation was postponed while he continued under observation. A week later doctors removed the oxygen supplement that Pagan was receiving.

Now his life experience is helping him to communicate with his congregation about the coronavirus and staying safe and secure. One of his first Facebook videos, which has more than 80,000 views, was recorded in the hospital where he was admitted. Pagan said he does the same thing at his business, My Town Barber Shop, that he opened 13 years ago in Plant City.

My Town Barber Shop Owner Carlos Pagan, who is also an evangelical pastor, gives Michael Skjefte a haircut in Plant City on Tuesday, August 11, 2020. Pagan survived COVID-19 after doctors told him he had a 20 percent chance to outlive the disease. During 10 days at the hospital he thought of his family and his relationship with God. "I know that God has made me a lot of promises that haven't been fulfilled, I know that that wasn't my last day here," Pagan said he thought when he was given the news. "That's what gave me the strength to continue fighting it."
My Town Barber Shop Owner Carlos Pagan, who is also an evangelical pastor, gives Michael Skjefte a haircut in Plant City on Tuesday, August 11, 2020. Pagan survived COVID-19 after doctors told him he had a 20 percent chance to outlive the disease. During 10 days at the hospital he thought of his family and his relationship with God. "I know that God has made me a lot of promises that haven't been fulfilled, I know that that wasn't my last day here," Pagan said he thought when he was given the news. "That's what gave me the strength to continue fighting it." [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

"God is good, he protects us, but we have to do our part, too," said Pagan. "Faith and prudence go on the same hand."

Two Sundays ago, Pagan returned to his church to meet with a group of eight people. All precautions were in place, said Pagan. That included asking congregants to sit 6 feet apart, wear masks and to use disinfectant spray to wipe down the area around them.

The state Department of Health has urged places of worship to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. Masks are extremely important when social distancing is difficult but are not required at Hillsborough churches, according to a county order passed June 29. The order only requires people to wear masks in businesses open to the public.

Nationwide more than 650 cases have been linked to at least 40 religious facilities and places of worship during the pandemic, according to tracking by the New York Times.

With schools and universities now poised to open, recommendations on how to minimize risk represents the new normal that people will likely need to follow for some time, said Dr. Marissa Levine, director of the Center for Leadership in Public Health Practice at the University of South Florida.

"That means that our most effective tools for combating this virus are physical distancing, using adequate cloth face coverings and practicing effective hygiene and disinfection," said Levine.

Many people have incorporated those practices into their day-to-day activities and, as a result, Levine said we have begun to see decreased community transmission.

“This is not political, just practical and represents the efforts of a cohesive community working together against a common threat,” said Levine.

Herbert Morataya, 51, also is a COVID-19 survivor. Like Pagan, he decided to share his experience to support his community in the fight against new infections.

Originally from Guatemala, Herbert Morataya is a pastor at ‘Manantial de Vida, Fe y Esperanza Church’ ( Spring of Life, Faith and Hope Church)  in Plant City. He was hospitalized on June 19 at St. Joseph's Hospital and remained 22 days connected to an assisted breathing system.
Originally from Guatemala, Herbert Morataya is a pastor at ‘Manantial de Vida, Fe y Esperanza Church’ ( Spring of Life, Faith and Hope Church) in Plant City. He was hospitalized on June 19 at St. Joseph's Hospital and remained 22 days connected to an assisted breathing system. [ Courtesy of H. Morataya ]

“It is important during and after the virus because you never know if it will come for us,” he said.

Originally from Guatemala, Morataya is a pastor and spiritual adviser at Manantial de Vida, Fe y Esperanza ( Spring of Life, Faith and Hope) in Plant City. He was hospitalized on June 19 at St. Joseph’s Hospital. Morataya for 22 days was connected to an assisted breathing system. His wife Maira, 50, and his son Herbert Jr., 23, were diagnosed with COVID-19, too, but they only had a slight cough.

Morataya believes that he could have been infected when he was distributing vegetables and fruits in Orlando.

“At some point I had contact with someone and maybe I touched my eyes with my fingers because I have cataracts,” Morataya said. “There is more than one possibility but it didn’t happen in my church.”

The church was closed since the end of March but pastor Herbert Morataya brings his weekly mass to Facebook.
The church was closed since the end of March but pastor Herbert Morataya brings his weekly mass to Facebook. [ JUAN CARLOS CHAVEZ | Timies ]

Morataya said he closed his church at the end of March but he brings his weekly mass to Facebook to help people feel connected. He said he emphasize the value of family and the importance to follow measures to reduce the risk of spreading the virus.

Morataya said that when he was in the hospital he thought about his mission as a human being and pastor.

“The days passed and my thought was: God, it is possible that I will die through this disease. But, what do you want to teach me?”

Pastor Morataya remained connected to an assisted breathing system for 22 days.
Pastor Morataya remained connected to an assisted breathing system for 22 days. [ Courtesy H. Morataya ]

With that in mind Morataya told himself that if he survived he would work hard to share his message.

“Today I tell each person who is outside to take care of themselves, since the virus does not respect age or origin,” said Morayata. “It is real and I was affected.”

• • •

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