It has been seven months since Rita Robles-Baker lost her daughter Brandy. At only 26-years-old, Brandy’s death was unexpected to say the least. But what’s happened since, the pandemic, has deepened the mystery. Robles-Baker thinks her daugher may have been one of its first victims.
Thinking back to last december brings both smiles and tears for Robles-Baker. “Sunday we went out had dinner, watched a play at Stars Theater and that’s when she wouldn’t eat.” “She had a voracious appetite and for her not to want to eat and she kept saying things do not taste right or smell right.” “I brushed the whole thing off as a cold, with the coughing or chest pain, until I found her dead.” That was on December 21st. The world hadn’t even heard of COVID-19. It would still be weeks before officials in Wuhan, China confirmed the first death due to the virus. On January 6th, what would have been Brandy’s 27th birthday, friends and family came together to remember and lay her to rest.
“It’s a daily struggle. I loved her, I just miss her. She left a big void, it’s an adjustment I’ll have to make the rest of my life,” says Robles-Baker. But with that void, there’s also a nagging suspicion that started to grow as cases of the novel coronavirus were confirmed in the US, then California and eventually, three months after brandy’s death, in Kern County. The official cause of death on the coroner’s report says accute bronchopneumonia. “Something didn’t feel right to me about the whole situaton. I did trust in the coroner’s office in the cause of death but as months went by with the COVID, the loss of smell and test and the corner’s report said white blood cells in the lungs and that’s one thing in COVID the body attacks itself.”
As Robles-Baker began to wonder, so did public health officials. The governor asked coroners to look for deaths that could have been caused by COVID-19, before we even thought the virus was here. According to the California Departement of Public Health, Kern County identified two deaths, one of which we know was Brandy’s. But that’s where the investigation stopped. Officials with CDPH must review the cases to determine if they meet CDC criteria for further testing. So far no samples from Kern County have been forwarded to the CDC. “It matters to me because it would be a haunting question. I’d always wonder. It’s not going to bring her back.”
But Robles-Baker isn’t done fighting for answers. If she can’t get a test from the CDC, she’ll take the samples to a lab herself. But she can’t do both, so for now she has to wait, to see if the CDC will approve Brandy’s case. As the pandemic plays out, she and many others want to know, just when did it really start.