Revere turns to coronavirus survivors for new awareness campaign as city remains in pandemic’s grip

Britney Sao’s father spent 45 days in an intensive care unit battling COVID-19 this spring. She couldn’t see him — let alone leave her house, wracked by headaches and dizziness as she, her mother and her sister all came down with the highly contagious virus, too.

“It was a brutal month,” Sao, 19, told the Herald. “I would never wish that on anyone else.”

Sao and her family beat the virus. Now, she’s sharing their harrowing plight as part of Revere’s new video awareness campaign that features survivors telling their stories in hopes of compelling others to keep taking COVID-19 seriously.

“People just don’t want to wear their masks and take the necessary precautions to socially distance,” Sao said. “People can’t be selfish. They can’t be inconsiderate of other people’s health.”

Mayor Brian Arrigo said Revere — one of the half-dozen or so cities routinely labeled by the state as high-risk for coronavirus transmission — is trying the videos as “a different way of communicating the importance of taking things seriously.”

Sao is one of four people featured in the campaign. The others are Elayna O’Neil, a 66-year-old woman who spent 45 days in the hospital, including 20 on a ventilator; Marvin Pena, a 35-year-old veteran and marathon runner who spent 23 days in a coma and five weeks in intensive care; and Sara Restrepo, a professional singer who went to the hospital three times to be put on oxygen.

For Sao, her family’s battle with COVID-19 began when her 43-year-old father, Pheap Sao, fell ill at the end of March. With testing scarce, he had to exaggerate his symptoms just to get swabbed.

REVERE MA. SEPTEMBER 21: Family of Britney Sao, all came down with Covid-19, and she is now working on an awareness campaign with the city. on September 21, 2020 in Revere, MA. Britney Sao, father Pheap Sao, mother Sarumney Suong younger sister Sarena Sao. (Courtesy Photo /MediaNews Group/Boston Herald)

His condition quickly worsened, his fever compounded by pneumonia and diarrhea. He went to the emergency room and was admitted to intensive care less than an hour later.

“If we didn’t bring him to the emergency room at that point, I feel like he would have been gone,” Sao said.

The next 45 days were anguishing. As the virus swept through her family, Sao’s 37-year-old mother, Sarumney Suong, fell increasingly ill. Sao “couldn’t even move.” Her 17-year-old sister, Sarena Sao, got lucky with just a mild case.

In the hospital, her father was struggling. The family’s only contact was through his doctors. Putting him on a ventilator didn’t help. Doctors soon turned to what Sao said they referred to as a last resort — transferring oxygen.

It worked. After a stint in rehab, Pheap Sao was reunited with his loved ones.

Months later, the family is taking nothing for granted, wearing masks, using hand sanitizer, disinfecting their house daily and working to stay healthy as uncertainty abounds about how long antibodies last.

But others aren’t taking the same precautions. Clusters are emerging from gatherings across the state where people aren’t wearing masks or social distancing. A Revere resident who contracted the virus at work spread it to 20 family members and friends at various social gatherings, officials said in August.

“COVID is a real thing and it’s killed so many people,” Sao said in the video she filmed for Revere. “I’m not going to lose my dad because someone didn’t want to mask up and stay home.”

The videos are just part of the city’s awareness and prevention efforts, which include working with the state to provide free testing, send multilingual ambassadors into neighborhoods and step up enforcement of gatherings and business restrictions.

Arrigo hopes the messages from survivors, shared on local cable access and social media, will drive home the need to follow public health protocols.

“They’re a more powerful way to get the message across,” he said.


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