'He was the engine': One Latino family's story grappling with COVID-19
By the time Thomas Lopez died of COVID-19 on April 2, social distancing had taken hold in Washington. But the disparate effects the disease was having on the state’s Latino population was not yet clear.
The data that have emerged since then are stark. Latinos only make up about 13 percent of Washington's population. But they make up more than a third of the state's COVID-19 cases.
Doctors and other experts point to several factors that can put Latino families at a disadvantage when it comes to fighting the coronavirus. One is economic pressure to continue working. Another is navigating a complicated health care system without having a strong grasp of English.
Lopez's wife, Antonia Zamorano, says both of these factors were at play when Lopez got sick.
TACOS EL TAJIN
Zamorano met Lopez more than 20 years ago in the state of Hidalgo in central Mexico. Lopez was working clearing brush from land.
"He came to clear my grandfather's land," Zamorano said, through an interpreter. "That's how I met him, and we became boyfriend and girlfriend."
They dated for a few months before Lopez came to the U.S. for the first time. He returned to Mexico about a year and a half later to marry Antonia. After the wedding, they came to the U.S. together and eventually settled in Pacific, Washington, just south of Auburn.
Lopez went to work in construction. At first, Zamorano just stayed home.
"I had no kids. I had nothing to do at home," Zamorano said. "So I would cook food and I would bring it to him wherever he was working."
Zamorano brought Lopez lunch almost every day. She made salsa verde, mole, tamales and tacos. Lopez's coworkers offered to pay her per plate of food. Then the neighbors began asking for plates as well.
That's how Tacos El Tajin was born. The family now owns two trucks and a restaurant in Algona.
Lopez gained a little fame in 2017 when a propane tanker overturned on Interstate 5. The traffic backup lasted for hours, and people started getting hungry. So Lopez began slinging tacos from his truck on the highway.
Another woman who was stuck in traffic took a video that was widely shared at the time. She shows the cars lined up behind police lights. Then she turns the camera on Lopez's bright green truck.
"And I smell tacos," she says. "This is hilarious."
Zamorano says this is how Lopez was. She would cook while he dealt with customers.
"He loved to talk to people. He loved to share with people," she said. "He was very friendly. He was very sociable."
Zamorano grew to love working on the truck with Lopez. She explained that he wasn't coming home exhausted from the construction site, and she loved that they got to be together all the time.
When Zamorano walks through Lopez's final weeks, she attaches a date to nearly every event.
"The first thing that happened was we got the flu on March 1," she said.
This was one day after public health officials announced the first coronavirus-related death in the U.S. It was also around this time it became clear that the virus was spreading throughout the Puget Sound region.
Zamorano had heard of the coronavirus, and she wondered if that's what Lopez had. He had been working on the truck in Seattle's South Lake Union neighborhood. She took her husband to the hospital, but he wasn't tested then and the couple was sent home.
"By March 8, I took him to the hospital again because he couldn't breathe really well," Zamorano said.
Once again, Lopez was not tested. Zamorano says she felt more confident because doctors said his lungs were OK.
"They kept saying don't worry," she said. "But he even had bruising on his stomach because he was coughing so much."
It's not clear why Lopez wasn't tested at this point. But this was early in the pandemic. Testing supplies were even more limited than they are now, and patients seeking tests had to check a lot of boxes when it came to their symptoms.
It's also worth noting that the couple's second hospital visit was about a week before the state started issuing restrictions on restaurants and other businesses. Lopez and Zamorano continued working. She says nobody told them specifically to stop, and they had to keep going to support the family.
"They kept saying don't worry. But he even had bruising on his stomach because he was coughing so much."
"We kept working until March 22," Zamorano said.
Lopez stopped going to Seattle. Zamorano went by herself for two more days before she also started feeling sick. She tried to get Lopez to go back to the hospital. But he didn't want to go. He expected the doctors to tell them the same thing they had before.
One of the last things Lopez did before he died was he tried to finish up payroll paperwork for the restaurant.
"On March 27, I saw that he was getting worse and worse," Zamorano said. "So we went to the hospital."
When they got there, they explained Lopez's symptoms. Zamorano gave him a kiss on the cheek before he was whisked away to another room where she wasn't allowed.
"That was the last time I saw him," Zamorano said.
The week that Lopez was in isolation, Zamorano was distraught. She says she felt like she never knew what the doctors were doing, why Lopez was being sedated or intubated. She says she was the one calling the hospital to see how he was.
On April 2, Zamorano got the call that her husband was taking a turn for the worse. A nurse connected them through FaceTime, and she said goodbye.
"We were in that FaceTime call for about an hour. I was really praying to God," Zamorano said. "Around 10:30 (a.m.), I was told that he was almost gone and there was nothing they could do for him."
Lopez died at age 44.
Zamorano and her mother also tested positive for COVID-19. Her mother spent some time in the hospital, but recovered. Zamorano says no one else in the family seems to have gotten sick.
Life since her husband's death has been difficult and uncertain. It was more than two weeks before the family was able to see his body and lay it to rest. The trucks and the restaurant were shuttered for weeks. They began selling food again for takeout earlier this month, but business is slow. And she’s still not sure how to run it all without Lopez.
"He was the engine, the motor for this home, for everything," Zamorano said. "I just need him so much."