SAND SPRINGS — Michael Velasquez served two tours of duty in Iraq in 2005-06 and 2008-09 as a sergeant with the Army’s 101st Airborne Division in a gun-truck platoon escorting convoys across battle zones in Kirkuk and Tikrit.
He is familiar with the horrors of combat.
Yet he says he would “rather be back in war right now because at least then I knew that my brothers and sisters in arms — we were fighting for the same thing. Here it’s so divided.”
“Here” is Anywhere, USA, the front line being the battle against COVID-19, a pandemic that since February 2020 has killed nearly 650,000 Americans — more than 9,000 of them Oklahomans — and has most recently begun targeting ever younger victims.
Velasquez, 36, and his wife, Mireille Mbau-Velasquez, are raising their four children — 8-year-old twin boys and two daughters ages 3 and 4 — in Sand Springs, where they have lived for about five years.
One week after classes started for the boys at Pratt Elementary School, Paulo became ill, and a test confirmed the family’s worst fears: He was positive for COVID-19.
The twins had attended classes for only five days.
‘My son is a soldier’
Fortunately, Paulo’s symptoms were mild. He never lost his senses of taste or smell, and he didn’t run a fever. He had just a little congestion.
“My anxiety is more than his COVID symptoms, to be honest,” Velasquez said last week.
But the third-grader was quarantined alone in one bedroom of the family’s home because his mother has underlying health conditions.
Velasquez went outside each day to communicate with Paulo through a window. He wanted to get his eyes on the boy and make sure his mental health was good, too.
“My son is a soldier. Thank God for Chick-fil-A, Fortnight” and other things that “keep his mind occupied,” he said.
“I come outside and say a prayer and check on him every day and clean up after him when he eats and when he uses the restroom.
“Unfortunately, his mother has severe asthma, so this is the outcome of his positive COVID test,” he said. “My son wore a mask every day he went to school and still” contracted the virus.
Velasquez can’t be certain that Paulo was infected at school, of course. In fact, his greater fear might be that his son was infected while the family was shopping for school clothes and supplies before classes began.
“That is the thing that weighs heavy on our heads,” he said. “We try to not to take them out too much, but there was quite a bit of school shopping.
“But our kids — when we leave the house, we wear masks. We were the parents who always insisted on masks.”
Velasquez isn’t happy with a law passed by the state Legislature and signed by Gov. Kevin Stitt in May that bans school districts from requiring students to wear masks at school — a law that is now tied up in the courts — and he wishes Sand Springs Public Schools was taking a stronger position about mask use.
Even so, he praised the district’s practice of publicly posting its school sites’ COVID positivity rates online once a week.
“I feel like they are doing an excellent job despite the backlash they might be getting from the transparency,” he said.
‘This could end a life’
Velasquez’s greatest frustrations lie with other parents — people who say, just as he does, that their children are precious yet act in ways that don’t seem to bear that out.
“I’m scared that there are two types of parents — those who want their kids to be safe and do the right things and put on their masks,” he said.
“The other kind is more prone to send their kids to school with minor symptoms because they don’t believe it (COVID) is any worse than the flu.
“It upsets me that people act like, ‘Let’s just let the kids get an education,’ but this is a life issue. For all you know, this could end a life,” Velasquez said.
With kids being kids, he also worries about the children who are wearing masks but are being bullied or teased for doing so.
“Children are sponges,” he said. “They hear their parents at home making fun of people for wearing masks, and the kids pick up on that.
“What about the kids who get picked on who are scared to wear a mask and so they just put it in their pocket?
“You have to be courageous to wear a mask.”
It also upsets Velasquez that a public health crisis has turned into something political and divisive.
“To me, that is the scariest thing in the world when you don’t have that cohesion and the ‘Let’s do what we have to do to get over this’ attitude.”
‘He’s ready to be a kid again’
Velasquez said his family is doing its part.
Every day while Paulo was quarantined with COVID-19, the rest of the family was tested at a local urgent-care facility that does drive-through testing.
“I feel like I’m doing my due diligence by doing that,” Velasquez said. “Yes, it causes anxiety, but I don’t want to expose anyone else unintentionally by being positive and not knowing it.”
And he and his wife, who is studying nursing online through Tulsa Community College, have been vaccinated.
“What made me get vaccinated — there were two things on my mind,” he said. “First, school was about to start and things are going to go crazy, which they did.”
But then he saw a news story about a woman who was hospitalized on a ventilator, dying of COVID.
“Her last message wasn’t ‘I love you.’ It was ‘Get the vaccine,’” he said. “My wife and I went that day.”
And now, Velasquez wonders, “If we wouldn’t have gotten the vaccine, who knows where we would be?”
Paulo was eager for his quarantine to end. Friday was his last day.
“He wants to be back at school and back out on the football field,” his father said last week. “But he has his homework, and he has his game. He’s being very well-taken care of, but he’s ready to be a kid again.”
Velasquez, too, is ready for life to look a bit more normal, but he knows it will take more than just a few people doing what’s best for the larger community.
He said he wants to tell those who scoff at masks and vaccinations: “Be responsible, just like myself and fellow soldiers who fought or died for this country. Do your part so we can fight this together and once again enjoy the life opportunity we have been given.”
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