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Mayor’s crisis response director says COVID-19 vaccination ‘literally saved my life’

Joe Avalos, a reserve LAPD officer and director of Mayor Eric Garcetti's Crisis Response Team.
Joe Avalos, a reserve LAPD officer and director of Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Crisis Response Team, credits the Pfizer vaccination with saving his life.
(Joe Avalos)

When Joe Avalos developed a dry cough a couple of weeks ago, he thought it must be his allergies acting up, or all the dust from the new development in his neighborhood.

The reserve Los Angeles Police Department officer and director of Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Crisis Response Team did not think it was COVID-19, he said. After all, he’d received the Pfizer vaccination in December, and he was careful with social distancing and wearing his mask.

“I was like, there’s no way,” Avalos said.

But he was wrong. He did have COVID-19, from a breakthrough case of the highly contagious Delta variant, he said. And it almost killed him.

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What saved him, his doctors said, was the fact that he was vaccinated — which is why he’s now urging others, including fellow LAPD officers, to “think twice” before they refuse the jab.

Chief Michel Moore told the Police Commission that the LAPD had 33 personnel test positive for the coronavirus in the last week, a sharp uptick over recent weeks.

“My biggest point is to encourage people to consider this vaccine and how important it is and how it will save their life,” he said. “I know that it saved my life.”

Avalos, 53, has suffered from asthma in the past, and with a significant other who is a physician, he had always taken COVID-19 seriously, he said.

Even after he was vaccinated in December, he continued wearing a mask and social distancing, he said.

He doesn’t know exactly where he caught the virus, but he suspects it might have been during a charity bike ride that was held last month in memory of Valentin Martinez, another LAPD officer who died from COVID-19 last year.

Avalos had volunteered at the event, and at one point “got a little comfortable” and was picking up riders who had dropped out of the race in his van.

“Maybe I assumed everybody there was vaccinated there like me,” he said.

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It’s quite possible they weren’t. Nearly half the LAPD remains unvaccinated, despite officers getting priority access to the shots.

Within 24 hours, the cough began, Avalos said. As it worsened and the body aches began, his significant other urged him to get tested as they began isolating from each other, he said.

After the results came back positive, Avalos at first thought he would be able to beat it at home, particularly given that health officials say vaccinated people are better equipped to fight the virus.

However, when his oxygen levels dropped to a dangerous level, he rushed to the emergency room, he said, where the doctor took X-rays of his lungs and came back with a scary message.

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The LAPD says a 10th employee has died from complications of COVID-19 amid rising coronavirus cases across the region and within the department.

His lungs were in terrible shape, the doctor said, and he needed to be admitted immediately, kept on constant oxygen and prescribed the powerful antiviral medication remdesivir if he was going to pull through.

All of that quickly happened, Avalos said, and still, “for the next three days, it was a fight for my life.”

Avalos was in the hospital for six days, getting home Sunday. On Tuesday, he was “still extremely short of breath,” but no longer gasping for air, he said.

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Avalos said Garcetti, for whom he works directing a team of volunteer trauma counselors and first responders, checked on him multiple times while he was in the hospital. LAPD Chief Michel Moore called him every day, he said, and with his wife dropped off several days of food once Avalos was released.

Avalos said the support of city officials and the broader police department has been tremendous. What’s also been great, he said, have been the calls from police colleagues and others who have told him that, after hearing about his experience, they had decided to finally get vaccinated.

“I’m in no position to demand anyone to get anything, but [maybe] my story could help someone maybe think twice,” he said. “They’re not going to suffer as much as if they’re not vaccinated.”

When Avalos was on the COVID-19 unit, the doctor told him that everyone else there was unvaccinated, he said. “And they were all suffering tragically compared to my status.”


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