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Ron Barbosa's family has always been close. Members of the Dallas-area family see each other practically every day, and when the coronavirus pandemic struck, many of them thought it would be OK to continue spending time together.
But after family members went golfing and threw a surprise birthday dinner party for one of Barbosa's family members last month, at least 18 members of the extended family have become sick with COVID-19.
Three have become so ill that they have been hospitalized: Barbosa's 88-year-old dad, his 86-year-old mom, and his sister, who is going through chemotherapy for breast cancer.
"Everybody says, 'Oh, it's my family. I'm going to go see my brother. I’m going to see my cousin,' and they think that’s a safe word," Barbosa told BuzzFeed News.
While they aren't certain if the virus started spreading among the family at the May 30 party, Barbosa, 53, who did not attend the gathering, said that based on the time they started to see symptoms, it seems like the initial transmission among family members happened that weekend.
"It’s a big loving family that gets together all the time and they have dinner and this just happened to be a surprise birthday dinner," Barbosa said.
He said he believes his nephew, who hosted the party with his wife, was first exposed to the disease at work and that he had a cough on the day of the gathering. Earlier in the day, some of the men in the family went golfing together, and now Barbosa thinks it's possible they were exposed then.
"Next thing you know, the two nephews that basically live next door to him, they get the same cough and diarrhea, body aches, and they start getting sick," Barbosa said. "By the 6th [of June], there was a lot of symptoms. And by the 9th, people are getting really, really bad. And by the 13th, [my family] had to take my sister and my mom to the hospital."
The rapid spread of the coronavirus among the family comes as cases explode in Texas, prompting officials there to scramble to bring things under control. As of Thursday, the state has recorded more than 130,000 cases of COVID-19 and more than 2,200 deaths.
Due to recent increases in case numbers and hospitalizations, Gov. Greg Abbott said on Thursday the state will pause any further reopening. "The last thing we want to do as a state is go backwards and close down businesses," Abbott said in a statement. "This temporary pause will help our state corral the spread until we can safely enter the next phase of opening our state for business."
Public health experts have advised people to avoid any close contact with those outside of their immediate household, wear face coverings, and keep a safe distance from others when they leave home to protect those who are at higher risk of severe illness.
Barbosa, who is a volunteer EMT and photographer, said he and his wife, a doctor, have not been spending much time with family outside of their own household and that they wear masks and keep their distance when they do see them. But he knows not everyone in his family has been doing the same.
"The kids feel like they’re bulletproof," he said. "[They say], 'We’re safe. We’re going to keep living. We’re going to take trips, even. The airfares are down. We're blasting off!'"
Barbosa said while his sister has been discharged and he expects his mother to be able to go home soon, his father is still very sick.
He initially reached out to local news outlets on Wednesday after his father's doctors were having trouble locating a convalescent plasma match for him. Local TV station WFAA was the first to report on the family cluster. Just before the story aired, his dad finally got the plasma transfusion.
Barbosa said while his father is still very sick, his condition has improved slightly, adding that he wanted to urge those who have antibodies to donate their blood for convalescent plasma therapy.
"My message is that if you’re going to see family and they don't live with you, mask up and keep your distance," Barbosa said. "I want everyone to be with their loved ones. I just want everybody to be cautious and not try to take pictures and selfies with a group of 20 people."
Correction: There are more than 130,000 coronavirus cases in Texas. The number was misstated in a previous version of this story.
Correction: The family member whose birthday was celebrated was misidentified in a previous version of this story.