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Stories of recovery from Hillsborough Latinos sickened by coronavirus

Latinos are hospitalized at a rate nearly five times that of whites. But there’s no U.S. consensus on how to count survivors, so Florida doesn’t.

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RUSKIN — More than six months into the coronavirus pandemic, there’s no consensus on how to track the number of people who survive the disease. Florida is one state where health officials don’t even try.

But there’s little argument over another trend in the spread of the virus: Latinos are hospitalized from the virus at nearly five times the rate of white Americans.

Stories from Hillsborough County, where Latinos account for some 30 percent of the population, show how hospitalization and recovery can vary from victim to victim.

Ramón Rodríguez, a Dominican-born real estate agent, was hospitalized with the virus for 12 days in July, losing 20 pounds before going back to work in August. He credits his swift return to technology and how it enables him to work from the comfort of home.

“The technology has become my best ally,” said Rodríguez, 57, a husband and father.

Leonardo Begazo fell into a coma during April and was given just a 40 percent chance of surviving as he battled the coronavirus at South Bay Hospital.

Related: Coronavirus strikes each member of a Ruskin family differently. Dad nearly died.

Two weeks ago, still feeling the lingering effects of fatigue and sleep apnea, he returned to work as a nurse and clinical manager at Moffitt Cancer Center.

“It’s impressive how life gives us new opportunities,” said Begazo, 47. “My case is a good example that faith and science go hand in hand.”

Carolina Begazo, his wife, spent a week in the hospital with the coronavirus. She went back to work in June as a nurse technician at Florida Cancer Specialists & Research Institute in Tampa.

“To be honest I came back with a lot of anxiety," said. “After spending three months at home it’s always very difficult.”

• • •

For Rodriguez, recovery from the coronavirus came smoother than he expected.

The Riverview man has relied on computer programs like Zoom in getting his life back to normal; he can use it to show customers properties for sale while working from home.

Ramón Rodríguez, 57, a Dominican-born real estate agent, is a COVID-19 survivor. He works from home. [ Courtesy of Edgar Rodriguez ]

Rodríguez said he had never been hospitalized in his life. One challenge he faced in recovering: His family couldn’t come see him with hospitals closed to visitors to prevent the spread of the virus. Still, it helped to have long-distance support from relatives, friends and his church.

"I had never gone through something like this in all the time that I’ve lived in this country, and that is exactly 21 years,” Rodríguez said. “I never had problems of any kind until the coronavirus arrived.”

His wife Ines, 56, sister-in-law Modesta Ovalles, 70, and mother-in-law, Isidora, 87, also came down with the disease but showed only mild symptoms.

”The whole family got sick during that week in July, but I was the only one who had to go to the hospital because the situation was getting complicated, '' Rodríguez said. “Now we are all fine and recovered but we hope this pandemic ends very soon.”

Begazo, born in Peru, spent more than three weeks in the hospital battling a severe infection in his lungs. He was in a coma for 10 days, intubated and connected to a respirator in intensive care.

“Five months ago I was in a hospital without many options,” Begazo recalled. “Today, I can continue working in the career that I love and, most importantly, I can continue to take care of my family.”

He also looked forward to his return to work, a kind of therapy in itself. His surprising recovery was celebrated by his team at Moffitt with a lunch and a cake bearing the image of a lion and the message, “Welcome back Leo.”

Co-workers welcomed back Leonardo Begazo with a cake and a special message. [ Courtesy of Moffitt. ]

The sleep apnea he contracted causes a periodic halt in breathing for a short time, raising the danger of a heart attack or stroke. He uses a machine that creates pressure to keep his airway open during sleep.

“I’m optimistic," he said, “and I want to think that everything will be okay.”

His wife Carolina, a native of Colombia, was admitted to South Bay Hospital in Sun City Center two days after Begazo went in. She spent 24 hours in intensive care with pneumonia and another six days under observation before being released.

The couple’s children, Leonardo Jr., 21, and Diana María, 12, also came down with coronavirus but they recovered relatively quickly at home.

Carolina Begazo has cut her work week as a nurse technician from five days to four. She takes blood samples from a number of cancer patients every day, so social distancing is impossible. She wears gloves, two masks, a face shield and an insulating uniform. Two of her patients recently tested positive for COVID-19.

“The risk is always there,” she said.

Her Fridays off are special to her, spent taking care of her home and herself through muscle-relief therapies.

Coronavirus survivor Carolina Begazo, 47, a nurse technician at Florida Cancer Specialists & Research Institute, returned to her job in June but for just four days a week. Fridays are for muscle-relief therapy. [ Courtesy of Carolina Begazo ]

She has suffered from hair loss and has chronic pain in her back that worsens at night.

A few weeks ago, she took a blood test to see if her body had produced protective coronavirus antibodies. The result was negative.

“That means I can be infected again and that is why I must take additional precautions."

Still, she cherishes her work.

“It’s always nice to do what you like and try to get back to life as it was before — or at least try, even if the fear persists.”

• • •

Not everyone who recovers from the disease can resume their normal way of life. Differing views on what constitutes “recovery” has helped prevent health authorities from agreeing on a definition.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did not answer a question about how to measure recovery. The Florida Department of Health said in a statement to the Tampa Bay Times that different jurisdictions use different methods and that Florida chooses to feature hospitalizations, instead.

“Some states and countries measure a case as recovered when a person has had COVID-19 for more than 14 days, while others upon hospital discharge data – neither of which completely capture recovery of the full COVID positive population," according to the statement.

Across the world, but not in the United States, a single definition and metric is often arrived at on the national level, said Marissa Levin, director of the Center for Leadership in Public Health Practice at the University of South Florida.

Lacking that, many states and even local governments are coming up with their own.

“For whatever reason Florida has decided not to capture and report publicly on this information," Levine said. “Since we don’t have that, we are left with the current state of such data."

• • •

Tampa Bay Times coronavirus coverage

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