Fresno businessman Bobby Marina describes himself as a healthy and active 38-year-old who, along with his wife and many of their family and friends, treated the COVID-19 pandemic “as more of a joke” as the virus spread throughout 2020 and into 2021.
It took a close call for him and close friends who were hit hard by the virus this summer to turn around the strong skepticism he had about masks, vaccines and the severity of COVID-19. Now, he said, he’s a staunch advocate for vaccines and masks – and for people to get their information from reliable medical sources rather than the internet and social media.
Speaking to reporters by phone Friday in a media briefing with the Fresno County Department of Public Health, Marina recounted that when COVID-19 vaccines became available over the winter, he and his circle of family and friends were against getting the shots.
The group largely ignored the advice of public health officials, he said, relying instead on “friends, social media and places that were not factual” for information on the virus, the vaccine and precautions such as masks.
His mother-in-law was hospitalized for coronavirus on Christmas Eve and spent 10 days in the hospital. “The whole family was on pins and needles (wondering), is she going to make it?”
Even after that, however, “we were gathering, no protection, we hated masks, and actually made fun of them,” Marina said.
Change of heart
His attitude changed dramatically after a mid-summer gathering of several couples at a cabin at Lake Tahoe, when he came down with his first coronavirus symptoms: chills, sleeplessness, fever and aches. “My body felt I went through a meat grinder,” Marina said. Still, he added, “I thought if this is COVID, I’ll get over it in a day.”
Once he returned home from the weekend trip, Marina said he immediately tested positive for COVID-19 and went into quarantine from his wife and children, ages 11 and 7. “It was like living in a jail cell,” he said.
Not only did both of the other couples on the trip contract the virus, but his wife and children also got the virus. “I didn’t consider what it was going to do to the people around me,” he said. “I only thought about myself, in a sense.”
The owner of the cabin, a man in his 60s and father of one of the other men on the trip, came up to the house a few days after their weekend trip to do some work and also came down with COVID-19. He remains hospitalized in an induced coma and on a ventilator “fighting for his life,” Marina said. “You can imagine the kind of weight … that falls on my shoulders to think that he might have gotten COVID from me.”
The prospect of a man he’s known for 20 years possibly not surviving “is going to haunt me for the rest of my life.”
After he caught COVID-19, Marina said he spoke with a couple of doctor friends, and they turned him from “my preconceived notion about this vaccine and what I thought I knew about it, and how much fun I made of it.”
“Once the medical professionals started talking to me about my symptoms and what it could cause and how it could impact my family and my kids, that’s when I got truly educated,” he said.
At the cardboard box company he owns, Marina said, about half of his 35 employees are vaccinated, and half not. “When you ask someone who’s not vaccinated, what you find is the lack of knowledge and education about this virus.”
Marina said he, his wife and children recovered from the virus, but he and his wife are still feeling the effects. Marina continues to have a nagging cough and feels winded at the end of the day; his wife, also 38, has issues with numbness in her left foot, arms and her face, as well as headaches and dizziness, that doctors said may be signs of suffering a mini-stroke as she fought COVID-19.
“We never accounted for that,” he said of the longer-lasting impacts. “If I’d known … I think the vaccine would have been a much higher priority on our list. Now the vaccine is our number one priority.”
“Now I’m preaching this; I’m telling this story every chance I get,” he said. “If somebody can learn and save themselves and their families from my story, and there’s many like me … I hope people can get this message and understand it.”
Marina encourages his employees to get their vaccinations; those who cannot show proof of their shots are required to wear masks when they’re on the job. When two of his plant managers caught the virus a few weeks ago, “it nearly shut my business down,” he said. “We’re fighting every day just to keep going.”
“My hope is to lead by example,” Marina added.
Valley hospitals still in a bind
On Friday, the state Department of Public Health extended by at least another week a surge order for the greater San Joaquin Valley, from Stockton and San Joaquin County in the north to Bakersfield and Kern County in the south, requiring any hospitals that have space in their intensive-care units to accept transfers from other hospitals in the region that are out of beds in thier own ICUs.
The regional order was first activated a week ago, after hospitals throughout the 12-county region collectively fell to having less than 10% of their ICU beds available for critically ill patients for three straight days. The Valley fell below that 10% threshold on Aug. 31, and as of Thursday remains there, prompting the extension of the “surge protocol” through Sept. 16, when the state will re-evaluate the region’s ICU capacity.
The order applies to hospitals in Calaveras, Fresno, Kern, Kings, Madera, Mariposa, Merced, San Benito, San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Tulare and Tuolumne counties. If no hospitals in the region have available beds, the order requires medical centers in other parts of the state to accept the Valley’s overflow of ICU patients.
In Fresno and neighboring counties in the central San Joaquin Valley, hospitals are scrambling to find space and staff to care for critically ill patients without transferring if they can avoid it, said Dan Lynch, emergency medical services coordinator for Fresno County.
Over the past few weeks, hospitals in the Valley have transferred about 10 patients to other parts of the state, most to medical centers at Stanford and Davis. The reasons that more have not been sent to other hospitals, Lynch said, are the hardship on families and the risks involved in transporting a critically ill person, either by helicopter or ambulance, to more distant facilities.
“The best thing we can do for patient care is to bring in more staffing to care for those people,” Lynch said.
Valley hospitals are working with the state to coordinate the possible assignment of two 16-member military medical teams from the federal government to the region, Lynch said Friday, including one to Community Regional Medical Center in downtown Fresno, to help relieve the strain on hospital staff. Currently, he added, Community Regional is operating at about 112% of its capacity; its sister facility, Clovis Community Medical Center, is running at 140% of capacity.
It’s uncertain when those federal teams would be deployed to the Valley.
In the meantime, Community Regional said this week that it was in the process of bringing 117 travel nurses aboard to provide additional staffing there. Travel nurses are registered nurses who move among temporary assignments throughout the region or the country in areas where there is a shortage of nursing staff.
“When Community has 250 people out on isolation (because they’ve been exposed to or tested positive for COVID-19), it does make a dent” in the staffing crisis, Lynch said. “It’s always good news when you get a significant number of people like that.”
But, he added, “there are a lot of exhausted current employees who need a little bit of a break, as well.”
As of Thursday, hospitals across Fresno, Kings, Madera, Mariposa, Merced and Tulare counties were treating 776 patients for confirmed or suspected COVID-19 infections. Of that total, 143 were sick enough to require treatment in intensive-care units.
In Fresno County, a total of 421 confirmed or suspected coronavirus patients were in hospitals, including 89 in ICU beds.
Friday case update
Friday case updates from counties across the central San Joaquin Valley include:
Fresno County: 396 new cases Friday, 2,532 since Sunday, and 121,040 to date since the first case was identified more than 18 months ago in early March 2020. Seven deaths were reported Friday, 16 since Sunday, and 1,838 to date.
Kings County: 194 new cases Friday, 586 so far this week, and 27,558 to date; no additional deaths reported Friday, eight this week, and 274 to date.
Madera County: 116 new cases Friday, 407 new cases so far this week, 19,383 to date; four additional deaths this week, 254 to date.
Mariposa County: 10 new cases Friday, 50 new cases so far this week, 889 to date; no additional deaths this week, 10 to date.
Merced County: 155 new cases Friday, 715 so far this week, and 38,304 to date; four additional deaths reported Friday, nine this week, and 527 to date.
Tulare County: 89 new cases Friday, 1,680 reported so far this week, and 57,518 to date; three additional deaths reported Friday, nine this week, and 880 to date.
In the six-county region, more than 264,000 people have tested positive for coronavirus since March 2020, including almost 3,800 people who have died from the disease.