After nine grueling months of following the mandates and dealing with the restrictions of the pandemic, all it took was one slip-up for Zoila Hernandez and her whole Palo Alto household of six people to become infected with the coronavirus.
Now, days away from her rent deadline, with a diminishing food supply and no stable income, Hernandez is looking for any help she can get to weather the two-week isolation period that started Saturday.
"It's a really, really stressful, painful and depressing time," the Midtown neighborhood resident said.
Since the outset, Hernandez said everyone carefully followed the precautions of the health crisis. The mother personally knows how urgent it is to get the virus under control: In April, she sought financial help on NextDoor after her husband was let go from a job at a now-closed restaurant. The couple has since started delivering food with DoorDash.
Thanksgiving Day was mostly a single household affair: There was Hernandez; her husband, Jesus Valdivia; her son, Moizes; her eldest daughter, Natalie Mendez; Mendez's boyfriend, William Somoza; and Mendez's daughter, Crystal Toris, who is a local high school student.
Hernandez insisted the holiday be restricted to her own household with the exception of her second daughter, Sasha, who also lives in Palo Alto. (Hernandez's fourth child, a son, didn't come for the holiday.)
"I just wanted to stay home, by myself, with my children," Hernandez said.
Despite her efforts to minimize the health risks, however, by Saturday, Hernandez learned that everyone had been infected with the coronavirus. And the most likely culprit isn't Sasha, she said. (Nonetheless, health officials have repeatedly cautioned against inviting people from outside one's household during the holidays.)
The Tuesday before Thanksgiving, Moizes, who works in construction, began to feel fatigue and a runny nose, Hernandez said. It's no big deal, he said — just the usual symptoms of the flu during flu season. But his boss correctly insisted Moizes take a COVID-19 test anyway if he wanted to come back to work the following Monday.
Moizes went for a test at Stanford Health Care the Friday after Thanksgiving and received the news within hours that he was positive. Alarmed, Hernandez went with the rest of her household to get tested. By Saturday afternoon, they learned they were all positive.
"We all feel the symptoms now," said Hernandez, who is 56 years old and diabetic. "I just hope it's not gonna get worse."
Like Hernandez, her husband is in the high-risk category due to his age and his high blood pressure. But every household member seems to be afflicted to varying degrees with the common symptoms of COVID-19, such as body aches, congestion and fatigue, including Hernandez's granddaughter Crystal, who is 14 years old. According to Hernandez, Crystal also wasn't spared from the more unusual symptoms of the illness, reporting a loss of appetite and some irritation in the ears.
Perhaps it would have helped if Moizes had sought a test as soon as he felt his flu-like symptoms. At the very least, it would've prompted Hernandez not to let her daughter Sasha come on Thanksgiving. But beyond that, Hernandez feels there was very little she could do to avoid an outbreak in her two-bedroom home that houses six people.
"I don't live in a hotel," she said.
Now, every household member, including the main income-earners, cannot work or do essential tasks such as shopping for groceries or getting quarters to do her family's laundry. Hernandez said she had tried contacting the county for financial assistance but to no avail.
"The county hasn't been helping us," she said. "No resources. Nothing."
Hernandez is most worried that the family will run out of food and other essential supplies if everyone's stuck in the house. And with rent due in a few days, Hernandez this week again turned to NextDoor to seek help. That's when Becky Chan, a new Palo Alto resident and total stranger to Hernandez, stepped in to help Hernandez receive a much-needed lifeline.
"I'm very privileged because I do work in tech; I'm working from home; I don't need to go outside," Chan said. "In theory, I could live like this for a very long time. But there are people who need to leave their homes to go to work, therefore being more exposed."
Chan, a program manager at Google, was scrolling through the neighborhood social media app when she ran across Hernandez's call for help. Wanting to take a more active approach to helping Hernandez rather than redirecting her to another online resource, Chan decided to set up a GoFundMe page to help raise enough money for the family to get through the month.
"You hear a lot about these resources that are quote-unquote available for people who need help," Chan said. "But until working with Zoila, I didn't really realize how challenging it was to actually navigate and find these resources. Yes, you can Google 'Santa Clara COVID help,' but how you actually get the help is an entirely different story."
Since Sunday, the fundraiser has raised $2,761 out of the $3,400 goal — enough to pay one month's rent and a week of groceries. Other local residents have also stepped up to deliver household supplies and food to Hernandez's doorsteps.
"What really hit home was when I was setting up the GoFundMe page with her over the phone and asked her what her ZIP code was," Chan said. "I realized, 'Oh, we have the same ZIP code. You're probably just 2 miles down the road.' I tried to write the GoFundMe Page in a way (to emphasize) Zoila is part of our community and anyone can be in her situation."
Though unfortunate, nothing about Hernandez's case is surprising. For weeks and in some cases months, experts have known how COVID-19 would disproportionately impact low-income families, how the virus would be a double-whammy during flu-season, and how it will spike during the holiday season.
In Santa Clara County, citing a dramatic rise in cases, Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody on Saturday announced more local health restrictions.
For Hernandez, she has only the now all-too-familiar message to share: "Please wear your masks; don't go outside much; and don't bring outside family and friends to the house."
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.