We recently caught up with Councilperson Rolando Lavarro over Zoom to chat about everything going on right now as well as his story. Rolando tested positive for COVID-19 back in March and tells us all about his experience. We both got very emotional talking about the loss of Michael Yun to this virus. Rolando also shares his thoughts on how Jersey City will move forward. Thank you Rolando for your time and we are so happy to see you doing better.
What’s your name?
My name is Rolando Lavarro.
What do you do?
I’m one of 9 members of the City Council for the City of Jersey City.
How long have you been a councilperson?
I have been a councilperson for nearly 8 and a half years.
How did you get into local politics?
My route to local politics was not a traditional one, I guess I would say. I wasn’t lifelong into the involvement in politics. As the story goes and as I shared with folks when I first ran for office in 2009 for a Ward A council seat at the time, I blame it on a guy by the name of President Barack Obama. I was a big fan and supporter of his.
We miss him! We miss him so much.
I know, we all miss him. We miss his leadership in this dire time.
I was a big fan of his 2008 campaign and I still remember the day on January 20th, 2009 when he delivered his inauguration speech. He called on the nation and every American to do our part to rebuild the country. I took him very literally at that time, called up a friend of mine, and told him I was going to run for the Ward A city council seat. There were some similarities with him and I could definitely identify with his story, having been a community organizer in Chicago for him. I was doing similar work here in Jersey City prior to that election. When he inspired me to decide to not just make the change in organizing and advocacy, but to actually try to be involved in the cogs of government and trying to make a difference that way.
That’s my story, I ultimately lost that city council seat in 2009 and carried a similar message, but a local one of change, that we could make a transformative change in Jersey City. Ultimately, I ran for the Council-at-Large seat when there was a special election back then for two Council-at-Large seats. I was fortunate enough to be blessed by the voters of Jersey City to be elected back then.
Are you born and raised in Jersey City?
Not born, but raised. I came here when I was in the second grade, so around 7 years old. I’ve lived here ever since, with a few stops along the way. I spent some time in New York when I went to NYU for undergraduate and dormed there.
What’s your favorite thing about being a councilperson and serving Jersey City?
What I love is making a difference, whether it’s in constituent services and making sure that people come to you with a concern or an issue, no matter how small or large it may be, and be able to actually help them and assist them in solving that issue is a very gratifying kind of feeling. Then there’s the bigger policy stuff that when you put forward good policy, you’re able to effectuate change, whether it’s the earned sick day stuff we did here in Jersey City or if it was doing things like “no smoking in the parks” or farmers markets in all parks, trying to make that a reality here in Jersey City and start getting that started initially. All equally gratifying.
What would you say is your proudest accomplishment?
I’m very happy to have been a part of effectuating the earned sick days. The one that I think stands out with the greatest pride for me was when I was a councilman initially, when I was first elected, and cosponsored a legislation working with the union 32BJ to require developers who received tax abatements to providing living wages for maintenance and security workers in their buildings, as well as some health benefits. When we’re able to do things like that, when we’re able to leverage the powers of government to be able to bring about change and meaningful economic opportunity for folks in Jersey City, particularly… When I ran back then, I had an idea that there was a tale of two cities and disparities in the city and we needed to uplift everyone in our community, so when we can do things like that, that’s incredibly gratifying.
That’s great! So we’re all in quarantine and it’s been about 4-5 weeks now that this has been going on.
A lot longer! How are you doing?
I take it day by day. I’ve been trying to stay busy and positive and trying to do positive things for the community, but it’s hard. It’s definitely hard. I’m grateful that I’m healthy and have a home. I know you tested positive and had the coronavirus. Can you tell us a little bit more about that experience? How it happened, the symptoms you experienced, anything you can share?
Sure, I’m happy to share it and I’m truly blessed to be one of the folks who are recovering. We hear of all the tragedy and loss, and every life loss is terrible and tragic. We all cry and mourn for everyone. There are a lot of lives that have been saved in this and that gets lost in all this. Our healthcare heroes out there who are really doing a tremendous job under the most stressful and dire conditions. I tip my hat to them, they’re amazing. I think about the folks who took care of me and put their lives on the line. My experience started in mid-March after the last council meeting we all gathered together at, and I started to exhibit some very mild symptoms – low-grade fever and a “tickle in my throat” I described it as when I went to the doctor out a complete abundance of caution at the time because I was watching the news and thought I should get this checked out, make sure I’m not going anywhere. At that point, they kind of diagnosed me – I didn’t get the coronavirus test. I didn’t pass any of the CDC criteria of being in contact with anyone, been out of the country, other symptoms of fever. I don’t even know anyone who would consider my low-grade fever a real fever at the time. They did a run a test on me for strep throat and determined I had strep throat, which I was completely relieved to hear at the time. While it still hadn’t even really blown up in Jersey City or around the nation except for the state of Washington, at that time I was very relieved because I had read the news reports out of China and Europe and so forth. To learn that I thought it was just going to be strep throat was a relief at that time.
They gave me some antibiotics but within a couple of days, I can tell you the fever was escalating dramatically. I began to feel aches and pains with my body and headaches, as well. I was getting the chills. I can’t say the exact timeline of it, but there were – beyond the chills and stuff like that – the loss of taste, which is a common symptom of the coronavirus. I just remember how terrible food tasted, soup and everything. There was no taste for anything. After the 5-day treatment of antibiotics, I was nowhere close to getting better. I was getting worse, and I asked my doctor. At that point, everything was being done by telemetry, appointments with doctors. I got a telemetry appointment and the doctor prescribed another dose of antibiotics, a different one and stronger one called Augmentin. At that point, I was starting to take note of what I was being prescribed. While I was taking that medication and resting all the time, because frankly I was really fatigued and tired all the time, I was lying in bed and doing a little bit of texting and answering only the most dire phone calls and urgent ones. I was trying to get some rest and by the fourth day of that treatment, day nine at that point, nothing had really abated. I felt worse than ever. I reached out to my doctor at that point and said, “I think I’ve got this virus and I need to be tested.” They did the same screening process and my doctor at that point said I wasn’t eligible to take the test. I asked to be referred to somebody else within the corporate organization, the medical practice, and went through 2 levels of chains being rejected – the first appeal level, then getting up to a higher level doctor. After I made my appeal there and told them I had all of these symptoms, I’m asthmatic with a history of asthma, I’ve got other risk factors from high blood pressure to diabetes, and even had a heart episode with a cauterization back in 2015. I described all of them and told them that if I had this virus, I’m high risk and they agreed at that point to give me the test.
The next day, I went to Secaucus and took a drive-through test. That was the first time – when they talk about shortness of breath – that I realized I had shortness of breath. Most of the time, I had just been in my bed, going to the bathroom to clean myself up, getting some food out of the kitchen. Other than that, I was venturing much out anywhere. We were all in quarantine, but I wasn’t even getting out of the house or doing anything at that point because I was feeling so tired. When I got out of my bed and went just to my car and drove to Secaucus, I was exhausted and the shortness of breath issues were very palpable. I got through that and got back after taking the test, got back home and my wife was asking me if I had gotten the test and what did they do. I told her it was a swab and that was it, I wanted to go right back to bed and she asked, “Did they run any blood tests on you? Did they take any X-rays?” She works at JCMC, she’s not a medical professional, but her sister is a nurse and had advised that I should’ve gotten those blood tests given my history in asthma and everything else. I’m not the most healthy person in the best of times, so when I get a cold and things like that, I can be out for a little bit in normal circumstances. She was saying I should be getting those things so I reached out to another doctor and went to an urgent care facility who got us a prescription there, and went over there to get those blood tests and an x-ray. The doctors there didn’t even administer those tests, they did their normal check of vitals and when they checked my vitals, they said my oxygen levels and blood pressure were so low that I should be admitted to a hospital already. Not even knowing if I had the coronavirus because the test results hadn’t come back or anything. That’s not discovered when you have a telemetry appointment, no one’s checking your blood pressure there unless they’re asking you to take out your own machine at home. At that point, I did go to the hospital and I thank god for that because I’ve heard too many cases of people waiting and waiting, were sent home, and end up getting hospitalized and it becomes a very dire situation. While I was feeling miserable and it was one of the worst experiences of my life, I was blessed to get over there. My wife reminds me of it, she repeatedly tells me, “I saved your life.”
She’ll use it forever!
She’s already pulling that card, but she’s absolutely right in that regard. I tell people now, don’t be a tough guy. Don’t think you’re above this thing and you can fight through it. Use an abundance of caution and get yourself to the doctor, get yourself tested, whatever you have to do to make sure you’re healthy. Demand the medical care you need. We don’t know what’s going to happen with this virus and we hear too many stories of people who went in at the last minute or suddenly the symptoms crept up on them and they end up in the hospital, intubated, and then worse, potentially. I kept saying, “I don’t want any special treatment. I don’t want anyone to say anything in that regard.” She was a demand for me to get the treatment that I needed. I’m very blessed and fortunate in that regard.
We’re glad you’re okay and feeling better. It’s just a hard question to ask because as a blogger, as a writer, I try to keep things positive and happy. We lost somebody very dear to us and dear to the community, and it’s really hard because we look up to you guys. You guys are protecting our community and you do so much. Even if we don’t necessarily agree with opinions or the things you do or the way you do things, there’s still a love and appreciation for our councilpeople, for our mayor, for anybody who dedicates their life to community. Losing Michael Yun was a big shock, I think, to the whole city because was such a strong character and person. He had such an incredible story, and I remember interviewing him years ago and thinking, “This guy is a character, he needs his own show. He’s hilarious.” He is the classic American dream story of moving here, building his life, having this family, still being true to who he is. It’s such an incredible loss.
Yeah, you hit it on the nail there with Michael. He had a huge personality. Oftentimes, we didn’t know it but he and Councilman Boggiano may have been in disagreement or on the opposite side of things, in the minority of votes, and in arguments and debates with the council. But they made their presence felt at every council meeting. You said he should have his own show – his show was the city council televised twice a month and caucus meetings, as well. He had a couple of common phrases he liked to use and for an issue he probably disagreed with you on, he would politely approach it and say, “I’m looking this over and I’m scratching my head.” You knew whenever he said “scratching my head” that you were in for a grilling. He would question you and pound you over the head repeatedly with questions. Oftentimes, it was the administration and he would direct it there. He was relentless in that regard, but I think that’s what people loved about him, too, as a councilman. There were times when we did agree and when I would begrudgingly have to admit or eat some crow because he would point something out and you would find out months later that he was right about it. As much as no politician likes to admit they’re ever wrong, I would joke with the business administrator and others and say, “Do you really have to lather it on so thick and remind him he was right about things?” People loved him because he was real fighter for them. Whether you agreed with him on any issues or not, you knew his heart was in the right place and he really represented Jersey City. He was that story of success, that immigrant story in a city with more than a 40% immigrant population. A stone’s throw from the Statue of Liberty and what that represents to everybody as a dream. He was that dream and the fulfillment of that. I shared with folks his passing and this idea that when I reflected on his life, I think his service as a councilman was meant to be… Like, he didn’t have to do this, he was successful, had his life here in America and did very well business-wise, was loves in the community with his business. He didn’t have to do this, but he did it because he wanted to pay it forward. He talked about the idea that this country and this city had given him so much and he wanted to give it back. It’s that sort of love for this community that is going to get us out of this whole thing, that idea of being able it forward and bringing people together around that. He will be missed dearly.
Yeah, let’s go into the next steps. What is going on in City Hall? What’s going on in City Council? What are the things you guys are currently working on?
While folks think we’re maybe getting to flattening the curve here at this point, I don’t think anyone wants to get too far ahead of themselves. There’s some cautious optimism that maybe we’re flattening the curve. There still needs to be the functions moving forward to continue to prevent the continuing outbreak or spread of the virus itself. In order to do that, I think there’s going to be a need for more testing. While the city has administered a good deal of testing, which I think is a good thing we’re doing, we’re going to need even more testing going forward. Testing of folks who have not been tested but may have contracted it, but also testing in order to allow people to donate plasma. For folks who have contracted the virus and had were fortunate enough to recover, they can donate their plasma and be able to help the antibodies to potentially help people who are now struggling with the virus or recently contracted it. We need to be able to provide the testing so people can get tested to know they are now negative after they’ve been positive, we have to administer the test again before they can be able to donate plasma or blood. We’re going to have to improve our testing. The city has done some of that, but it’s probably beyond our capacity as a city to do that. We’re going to need state and federal intervention for assistance to have that testing capacity. The other thing I would say about testing, if we talk about antibody testing, I think I saw something about Union City doing that as a test for some of their first responders there. We’re going to need to do that, as well, because there are people who may have been affected by this and for whatever reason didn’t show any symptoms and no longer have the virus even now. They could’ve had the virus and it’s been expelled from their system in some way. If you test them and find out through their antibodies they, in fact, did contract that virus and they have antibodies that were able to provide resistance in some way to the virus. Those are the folks who can maybe make donations of their own plasma, and they’re potentially people who can go back and work. To my understanding, they might be able to do that and slowly get back into restoring some normalcy, slowly but surely. That’s what I think needs to be worked on going forward in terms of talking about how to reopen the economy.
There are other things that need to happen and I think the World Health Organization put out six recommendations for that, and I know the Trump administration put out their own guidelines on that. Even by their own guidelines, we haven’t met the standards. I think you need to have 14 days of statistics decreasing in infection rates or testing rates. I don’t think there’s any state in the country that’s truly met those standards, and yet you see some states already moving forward with reopening. It’s going to be a long road and there’s going to be a lot of work and sacrifice that’s still required and patience from folks. I love the approach that the Northeastern governors are taking on not just reopening the economy, but reimagining the economy so we’re not just trying to reopen it and hope people get their jobs back or get back on their feet, but that we imagine an economy that brings everyone back. Some people may see that as high in the sky, but I think that is completely possible and we can find a way to leave nobody behind in all of this. As we look at our city budgets, that’s something the city is looking at closely and turning over every stone to make sure our budget is most effectively providing the services that’s needed and protection needed to residents, but also making sure we eliminate unnecessary costs because folks are going to be hurting out there themselves and property owners are looking for relief from property taxes until they get back on their feet. Whether you talk about property owners, home owners, or renters, nobody is necessarily looking for a handout but they’re looking for some help to make sure they get through this crisis. We, as elected officials in government, have the opportunity to provide some help. We’re looking to do everything we can around that. There are relief funds being formed, working with banks to provide financial assistance, there’s loans, the Federal Recovery Act efforts, the state efforts to help small businesses as well as individuals. We see that some of these efforts are slow in coming forward. I hear constituents talk about their unemployment claims and not being able to file those.
I applied for every loan and I’m just waiting, hoping for the best. It’s a scary time, especially for small business owners.
You filed the application, it’s just waiting right now?
Yeah. I can’t even keep track of how many applications I’ve filed, at this point. I know that I’m not the only one, and I’m trying to do my best and try to help as many small businesses as I can and promote them for free on my platform and drive sales to them. The way I make money is through ads and sponsored posts, and I run a marketing agency where I run social media accounts for small businesses. Now these businesses are all closed, and the first thing to go is marketing. I don’t provide services people need. People in the creative field are kind of SOL, and it’s scary. I know I’m not the only person in this situation.
Yeah, you’re not. We need to look at how to help your situation and a lot of folks who are self-employed in that sense. I don’t know that there’s been a lot of proposed solutions there, but we have a lot of work to do. I welcome any ideas, and not to get off track or off topic but when we talk about this Ward D council seat in the vacancy there, one of the things that I’ve said in private conversations is that I’m open to any input or anyone who has thoughts and ideas on how to lift us out of this challenge. Not just the health crisis itself, but the economic crisis that we are already experiencing. When all of this is said and done, we don’t know what the ultimate fallout will be. If there are creative ideas on how to do that, I’m all ears and I’m happy to do what I can from my seat to be able to leverage any resources to assist folks and providing programs or services that might do that. Hopefully, we can bring in a Ward D councilperson who will do that.
What are you doing, other than working for the city and doing what you can, to stay healthy at home and in good spirits with your family?
I’ve only recently gotten to be recuperating. Other than that, I’ve been locked in my room in quarantine, essentially. Since then, I’m out with the family. My wife, now that I’m healthier, goes back to work at the Jersey City Medical Center. She does communications for them. Like so many other parents throughout the country, we have a daughter who is home and going to school online, so I stay home and taking care of her, making sure she does her work and gets fed, and my wife comes back from work and takes care of the dinner. Truth be told, she prepares the food in advance for breakfast and lunch. I just really have to reheat it!
Since I’ve gotten back into the swing of things, besides doing the schoolwork and everything, we find time as a dad and daughter to have fun at home. I recently asked for a lot of ideas because my daughter had spring break, so not only did I have her home, I needed to have spring break with her at home and figure out fun ways to do that. We did a couple of things, from cleaning the house to UNO and other games and watching things on TV and virtual activities with her.