Mauro Rojas had been looking forward to a few family trips he planned to take this year and had been working at chemical plants to save up money for starting an aquarium business to support his young family.
Just before Father’s Day, the Prairieville father began feeling the start of what he thought was strep throat, and a test he took at his wife’s instance revealed he had contracted the virus.
Brandie Rojas thought her husband’s young age and lack of any serious medical conditions would see him easily recover from the illness.
“He kept saying he was going to beat this and he was going to come home,” she said.
Within a few days after arriving at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center with a high fever and signs of pneumonia, Rojas’ health rapidly deteriorated, and his doctors put him into a medically induced coma while a ventilator pumped oxygen into his lungs. The virus also caused blood clots on his lungs.
After nearly a month in the hospital, Rojas died Friday from complications brought on by the coronavirus, making him among the youngest Louisianians to die from the respiratory disease COVID-19.
“We’re hurting so much now,” said Rojas’ sister, Piedad Rojas. “We didn’t expect this to happen.”
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In the past month, coronavirus infections among 20- to 30-year-olds have risen sharply across the state. Of the nearly 26,400 known cases in that bracket, just 16 people between those ages have died, according to the latest state health department figures.
Still, for Rojas’ loved ones, he was more than an outlier on a Louisiana Department of Health chart.
He had been married for the past six years and was the father of a 2-year-old son and a 3-year-old daughter who “meant the world to him,” said sister Piedad Rojas, 26, the oldest of three siblings.
The last time she spoke with her brother was a few days before he died. Communicating through a video app, they talked about their plans to visit family later this year in Mexico City.
“We had so much planned together,” Piedad Rojas said, while choking back tears Sunday afternoon.
As a friend, Mauro Rojas was the person who’d extend an open door anytime someone needed help. He was there, too, for a solid favor like an extra pair of hands to help move out of an apartment or a few bucks to pay the rent until the next paycheck came.
“He’d give you the shirt off his back,” said childhood friend Jacob Bracken-Holbert, 25, who attended East Ascension High School with Rojas. “He was great to be around and he always had your back.”
Bracken-Holbert and others believed Rojas would recover from the illness. Even his doctors were surprised by the swiftness of the virus’s devastating course.
The day her husband died, Brandie Rojas’ doctor called her to say her husband appeared to be improving and that the treatment for the blood clots had been working. An hour later, another doctor called saying Mauro abruptly “took a turn for the worst,” after likely finding more clots that were causing him to bleed internally, she said.
That evening, his family was asked to come to the hospital, believing it was likely the last time they would see him alive unless a risky “Hail Mary” effort to treat the blood clots was successful.
Within a few minutes of Rojas’ mother and sister arriving, his heart rate plummeted and they were rushed out of the room. A doctor later told them he didn’t survive.
His death has left his family in disbelief that someone so young could succumb to the illness, leading them to urge people to take public health safeguards seriously, amid a recent rise in infections.
“No matter how young or old you are, it can still affect you, and you can leave a lot of people behind,” said Bracken-Holbert.
Brandie Rojas said she and her husband, too, had been heeding public health warnings, such as wearing masks in public and avoiding large gatherings.
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Though younger people are more likely to have mild symptoms of COVID-19, federal health officials have stressed that they can still develop serious symptoms.
Deaths throughout the state have continued to remain high in recent weeks. State health officials reported an additional 58 deaths tied to the virus between Saturday and Sunday, as well as about 3,400 cases that brought the total number of infections in Louisiana to nearly 120,000.
People with underlying health conditions are at a high risk of severe coronavirus outcomes at any age, according to public health experts. High blood pressure is the leading underlying condition found in fatal cases throughout Louisiana, followed by diabetes.
Though Mauro Rojas had neither of those chronic conditions, Piedad Rojas said, his doctors at the time of his birth mentioned he was more susceptible to pneumonia and other infections.
Brandie Rojas also recalled her husband “getting the worst of it” any time a cold bug went around the house.
Still reeling from his death, the Rojas family is now facing the challenge of paying for a funeral.
Both Mauro and Brandie Rojas were laid off from their jobs at the beginning of the state’s outbreak this spring, leaving the young family’s budget stretched.
Friends set up an online fundraiser that by Sunday afternoon raised nearly $5,000 but still short of the costs to cover a funeral.
Family members are also having to navigate the logistics of holding a funeral service that may only be able to see a fraction of people who would like to attend.
“It’s so unfair,” said Piedad Rojas. “He had so many friends and family.”