(Clockwise from top) Kevin Laster, Melina Leon and Kairo, Giselle, and Eugenia Leon live in a duplex in East Oakland. They caught COVID-19 in December and were recently vaccinated. Credit: Amir Aziz

The holidays were a painful time for Kevin Laster, his fiancé Melina Leon, their two kids, and Eugenia Leon (Melina’s mother). In December, the entire family, except for one of the kids, contracted COVID-19.

Laster still doesn’t know how he caught the virus. His family had been diligently taking precautions: using hand sanitizer, disinfecting surfaces, and not socializing with anyone outside of their family bubble. But neither Laster nor Leon were able to work from home. Laster works in San Francisco, while Leon works at Kaiser Hospital in Oakland.

He was the first to get sick the week before Christmas. Leon was next, and then Eugenia, who lives in the second unit in their duplex, became ill. Kairo, their two-year-old son also tested positive for COVID-19 but was asymptomatic. Giselle, the couple’s seven-year-old daughter, tested negative for COVID-19.

Eugenia had the hardest time and had to be hospitalized for four days. The experience of sending her to the hospital, where they couldn’t visit, led the family to decide it was important they all get vaccinated. Melina got vaccinated at Kaiser on March 8, while Eugenia and Kevin got the shot on March 16. The entire family will go back for their second dose on April 6. Currently, the couple is eagerly waiting to hear when their children will be eligible to receive the vaccine.

The Oaklandside spoke to the family last week. The interview has been condensed for clarity.   

When did you all get sick, and what were the symptoms like?

Kevin: It was a Tuesday [the week before Chtistmas], and we had pho for dinner that night. For some reason I couldn’t finish it: that never happens. I just immediately started feeling sick. The next morning I was on my way to work and I had the worst pounding migraine. I couldn’t see. Melina comes home that afternoon and she checks my temperature and it is a little higher. She then left to take care of stuff, came back and checked my temperature again, and it was at 102.  She kept the kids away over at mom’s house. I didn’t get the body aches until way later. I didn’t lose sense of taste and lose sense of smell. It was just a bad migraine, vomiting, but nothing was coming up. Even the walk from our bedroom to the living room was the longest walk. I was sitting on the couch, shaking because I had the chills the whole night. The next day, I was feeling a little bit better and that’s when she said that she wasn’t feeling good.

Melina: I had body aches. I had the worst headache ever, to where my hair follicles hurt. On Christmas Eve, my mom got her positive results back and we got Kairo’s. On Christmas, me and Kevin were better. I still had a little bit of shortness of breath and had to use inhalers. We also got Giselle’s negative results back. My mom was supposed to be done with her quarantine the Monday after Christmas, on the 28th, but she wasn’t getting better. I checked her oxygen and it was 88-89, so it was really low. She went into the hospital on December 30 and wasn’t discharged until January 3. They put her on oxygen and she had been on it for almost three months. She’s the healthiest out of all of us and got hit the hardest.

At what point did you all decide to get vaccinated?

Kevin: Initially, our main holdup was the side effects. It felt like it was too new. It couldn’t possibly be perfected by now. We were ready to wait it out and find out what the prolonged effects will be. But after that experience, it was worth it to get it now.

Melina: After this whole situation it was a no brainer. Some people still don’t realize that, yes, you can still get COVID, but the vaccine will prevent you from landing in the hospital, or that you can still get re-infected. At least now we got the vaccine. We know that with the vaccine, plus our body’s natural response to already recognizing it from the first time we got it, it will be a common cold type of symptoms. Versus one of us going to the hospital.

Once you all made the decision to get it, what was the process like to set up an appointment to receive the first dose?

Melina: My mom’s doctor recommended she get vaccinated 90 days post-infection. I took that as a rule of thumb for all of us, even though she was the one that was hospitalized. I went on the kp.org, and you have to do an e-visit. A day or two later, they’ll send you an email so you can schedule your appointment online. I tried to schedule online, and couldn’t. I had to call and wait 45 minutes to talk to a representative. I did the same e-visit for my mom and my grandma, and was able to schedule it for them. Kevin scheduled his own. 

Kevin: I got two notifications from a church here in Oakland, and from La Clínica, and I also got the one from Kaiser. The church called me back, and they told me that they were giving out the Johnson & Johnson vaccine but I went to Kaiser instead. For me it was more of a waiting game. 

Melina: The information is not out there for people. We’re not getting flyers saying “Hey, come down here and get your vaccinations.” My grandma has not gotten a call. She doesn’t have a cell phone, she has a landline. She doesn’t have a computer, so I get those emails for her. I can only imagine what it is like for immigrants. They might not have a cell phone or the knowledge on where to get this info. You have people that don’t even live in Oakland, going to Black churches to take vaccines meant for underprivileged neighbors in the community. 

Kevin: The information for the vaccine should have gone out like an Amber Alert. It should have hit your phone with “You’re qualified, go here to get your vaccine.” 

What is your hope as more people get vaccinated, and children become eligible?

Kevin: Kairo was too little before the pandemic started. But now, he is just now coming out of his shell to where he’ll say “Hi.” But for a while he was afraid of groups of people. 

Melina: We obviously want our daughter to be able to go back to school to be around other kids. We know how being at home affected her negatively. We try as hard as we can to have regular playdates with her friend, but it’s not the same. It’s all through Zoom. We decided that we are not going to send Giselle back to school yet, and risk not only her teacher and her teacher’s family, all the other families and ours as well. 

Azucena Rasilla is a bilingual journalist from East Oakland reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.