As COVID-19 deaths began to peak in January, Arroyo Grande resident David Cuellar’s world was rocked when three of his immediate family members died in a matter of weeks — his jack-of-all-trades father, Raul Senior, his good-humored sister, Margie, and his brother, Raul Junior, with whom he shared a culinary passion.

Now, as David grapples with his losses, he is focused on honoring the memory of his loved ones, and urging the community to see his family’s story as a testament to the severity of COVID-19.

“I know we’re not the only ones going through this, but I like to say we’re a face to the numbers,” David said. “[People] are gonna know how serious this virus is when it wipes out half their family.”

To many Central Coast residents, comprehending the recent spike in COVID-19 deaths as anything more than a number can be difficult. However, for families who have been devastated by the virus, a disproportionate ratio of which are families of color, the numbers are all too real.

According to data through the end of 2020, Latinx and Hispanic individuals in Santa Barbara County, who comprise 40% of the population, accounted for 57% of all COVID-19 cases, 67% of COVID-19 hospitalizations and 50% of all deaths from the illness.  

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While San Luis Obispo County’s Hispanic and Latinx demographic is smaller, making up 22.9% of the population, the individuals accounted for 33% of cases, according to county data. 

Like the rest of the state, January was the deadliest month for COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic on the Central Coast. Within the month, deaths grew by 77% in San Luis Obispo County and 81% in Santa Barbara County, according to data from both counties.

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The Gomez family lost three family members to COVID-19 in January, including Andrea, far left, and her parents Juan, next left, and Victoria, next left.

For the Cuellars, the disease began spreading after entering the family’s six-person home in late December, eventually leading to the hospitalization of Raul Senior, Margie and Raul Junior at Marian Regional Medical Center.

The coming weeks would be a nightmare for the family, who were forced to make the decision to take Raul Senior off a ventilator on Jan. 10. Three days later, they had to make the same decision for Margie, while waiting to see whether Raul Junior would survive.

“With my brother, the whole time he was in the hospital, every time we would go visit him was so heart-wrenching. We knew we were going to have to make that decision for him, too,” David said. 

That day eventually came on Jan. 26, leaving the Cuellars heartbroken.

“It’s so quiet at the house. I try my best to come up and see my mom every day, because not only do I find it helpful, I like to think it helps her, too, to be able to see me and know that I’m here for her and I can give her that comfort when she does break down, and vice-versa,” Cuellar said. 

In Santa Maria, 30 minutes to the south, 21-year-old Naya Watkin’s family was navigating a similar tragedy. 

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Watkins, a resident of Grover Beach, said her great-grandparents Juan and Victoria Gomez have a long history in Santa Maria, originally coming from Mexico as part of the Bracero program. Over the years, a family home was established in the city, housing seven people by January including aunts, uncles and her great-grandparents.

Once Watkins’ great-grandmother tested positive for COVID-19 around New Year’s Eve, bringing the virus into the crowded household, everything changed. 

“It spread like wildfire in the family from that point. My great-grandparents, three of their kids, and one of their grandchildren were all at Marian, and three of them were in the [intensive care unit],” she said. 

In the coming weeks, three family members would be discharged from the hospital. However, Watkins’ great-grandparents, who were in their 80s, died in mid-January, with a service held on Jan. 29.

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Just two days later, Watkins’ aunt Andrea, who was in her 50s, also died. Throughout all the time spent in the hospital, Watkins said not being able to visit family members was one of the hardest parts.

“I can’t even describe the urge I had to drive over there and just bust through the doors. I can’t describe that heartbreak. It’s absolutely gutting,” Watkins said. 

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Arroyo Grande resident David Cuellar, left, is pictured with his brother Raul Junior, who died from COVID-19 along with David’s sister and father in January.

While Marian Regional Medical Center officials could not confirm the exact number of families treated at the hospital that experienced multiple COVID-19 deaths, they said the situation is not uncommon.

“For the vast majority of patients treated at Marian, transmission seems to have occurred within families. In families with multiple generations under the same roof, the risks are even greater,” said Infectious Disease Specialist Dr. Trees Ritter. “Based on the patients treated to date, we can conclude that spread between family members has resulted in a greater burden of disease in the Santa Maria area.”

Watkins, who is Afro-Indigenous, said she is concerned about the impacts the virus is having on working-class families of color like hers. Her aunts and uncles did not have the option to work from home, increasing the risk of the virus being brought home to the rest of the family, she said.  

“People can rationalize [COVID] like a cold, but this is a lot more than that. It’s really destroying families, especially those in the working class,” she said. “I feel like the fact that housing is so expensive in California, and people are having to live in houses together, is heavily contributing to spread.”

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