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‘It gets me really mad’: Bracing for more sickness and death, Americans aren’t buying Donald Trump’s message on COVID-19

‘It gets me really mad’: Bracing for more sickness and death, Americans aren’t buying Donald Trump’s message on COVID-19
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WASHINGTON—Those heading to Donald Trump’s rally at the Des Moines, IA airport on Wednesday were greeted by a billboard: “TRUMP COVID SUPERSPREADER EVENT,” it read, above a giant arrow pointing to the rally.

The ad didn’t deter the Trump faithful. Coronavirus cases are surging across the country , and Iowa has set records for the number of new COVID hospitalizations this month , but people packed like sardines into the airport hangar, very few wearing masks, to see the nation’s highest-profile COVID patient.

It was part of Trump’s comeback tour of rallies this week (Pennsylvania, Florida, Iowa, and North Carolina) since declaring himself cured. At the crowded events, he badmouthed mask usage (suggesting falsely they may be a source of spread rather than protection), attacked Dr. Anthony Fauci (who warned the rallies were “ asking for trouble ”), and said to those suffering, “I feel your pain because I felt your pain.” Then he said he “felt like Superman” and that the U.S. was “rounding the corner” on the virus.

Experts increasingly warn that if the U.S. is rounding a corner, it’s in the wrong direction, toward a third peak in infections that could be worse than the previous two.

“This is the time when we could be entering one of the worst periods of our epidemic and one of our worst periods in modern American public health,” Dr. Peter Hotez of the Baylor College of Medicine in Texas told CNN this week.

Weeks before the election, the pandemic has come roaring back to the top of the list of American concerns. But not to the top of Trump’s, as he presents his own recovery as evidence that coronavirus is no big deal. “When you catch it you get better, and then you’re immune,” he said shortly after he returned home from hospital, though neither assertion is necessarily true.

Indeed, it’s a virus that has already killed 218,000 Americans, hospitalized 430,000 , and infected more than 8 million. Not all of those with first-hand experience sum it up so cavalierly.

“It gets me mad. It gets me really mad,” Jennifer Ebuenga-Smith said of her reaction to seeing the crowds at those Trump rallies. “They’re being so dumb.” If they or someone close to them “experience a severe case of it, then maybe they’d take it seriously.”

Originally from Toronto (she attended the same Scarborough high school as I did), Ebuenga-Smith has lived in Union, New Jersey and worked as a nurse in a Newark hospital since 1998. She’s seen severe COVID cases: as a health-care professional at a hospital swamped in the spring wave; as the family member of a husband and a nephew who suffered mild cases and a sister who wound up intubated in California; and as a patient.

When the virus first emerged in the U.S. and her hospital filled up, 46-year-old Ebuenga-Smith (then serving as a cardiac transplant co-ordinator) joined the all-hands-on-deck effort to provide bedside care. Medical professionals were still learning about the virus, and PPE was in short supply, so she generally wasn’t wearing a mask, she said. It’s hard to trace which contact might have given her COVID.

But one day she was in her driveway on the phone. “I was telling my cousin I feel fine. You know ... and then as soon as I hung up, I couldn’t get out of my car. I wanted the seat heater so badly. I didn’t want to move.” General fatigue, aches, and the feeling of being cold overwhelmed her. Then came a high fever and severe headaches that left her unable to open her eyes in the light.

After a days in bed, self-medicating and tended by her husband Winston (who was also suffering a mild case of COIVD), things had worsened. Soon she had fluid on her lungs and her attempts to cough it up left her unable to catch her breath. Though she was reluctant, eventually her husband took her to the hospital where she worked.

“We’d started off with two COVID units — one was the COVID unit, one was a backup overflow. And that filled up in like one day. So then eventually, all of the units were COVID.” She was admitted first to what was normally a mother-and-baby unit — severely understaffed since the nursing ranks had been thinned by the influx of cases. Having severe difficulty breathing, Ebuenga-Smith was soon moved to a cardiac ICU.

She describes just reaching for toilet paper after using the washroom as an exertion that would leave her staggered. At one point, when the nasal oxygen she was receiving wasn’t sufficient, doctors placed an oxygen mask on top of it over her face. They said they’d try high-flow oxygen, “and if that doesn’t work, we need to intubate you,” Ebuenga-Smith said. “I said, ‘I haven’t even said bye to my children or anything like that.’”

As a nurse, she was well aware of the “morbidity” around this illness. She was afraid for her life. And afraid that if she survived after being intubated, she’d suffer brain damage.

All treatments were experimental at the time, with doctors trying to find what might work. “I got everything,” she says. She was given pretrial remdesivir, hydroxychloroquine, steroids, antibiotics, and an interleukin six antagonist. She was comforted knowing the staff well, and knowing they were doing everything they could for her. But because she worked there, she could understand the codes that indicated the emergencies other patients were experiencing. “I’d hear code after code,” she said. “And you just know: it’s so morbid out there. A lot of people weren’t making it.”

Ebuenga-Smith did make it — 12 days after being admitted, and 22 days after first falling ill, she went home. Her co-workers as she was wheeled out to her car to go home.

A month and a half later, she returned to work, though she still suffers a few nagging after-effects (forgetfulness she calls “COVID brain,” arm pain, hair loss). She says she’s prepared, if another bad wave comes, to be redeployed to treat COVID patients again. She is confident her hospital — and others across the country — are better prepared now to deal with the virus, though she worries her antibodies will wear off leaving her susceptible to reinfection.

But she’s also worried that the country’s leaders are still not taking the risk the virus poses seriously enough. “Trump hired some people to help him with making decisions, and then he wouldn’t listen to them. I’m really glad that Dr. Fauci is speaking up,” she says. “But I feel like Trump and his party, they’re really downplaying the severity of the disease.”

Obviously Trump got top-notch treatment not available to everyone else, and maybe got lucky as well. “He’s just kind of trying to make it seem like everybody’s making a big deal for nothing.” Her own experience, she says, leads her to a different conclusion: “There are so many people that died,” she says. “It is very serious.”

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Many countries — including Canada — are experiencing spikes in COVID infections. But most are taking drastic measures to address them: France is imposing curfews , England is reimposing lockdowns , Toronto and Ottawa saw bars and restaurants forced to halt indoor service again last week. Trump continues to call for further lifting restrictions, and conveying his message : “Do not be afraid of COVID.”

Since the beginning, Trump’s been accused of a failure to take the virus seriously. James Fallows of the Atlantic wrote extensively about the administration’s failure to prepare for the possibility of the pandemic, to respond in coordination with international partners when it emerged, and to react quickly enough to respond to the emergency.

The president’s long-standing insistence that the virus posed no further threat to the U.S has spawned a whole genre of journalism documenting how many times he’s said the virus was going away.

When I asked COVID expert Jeffrey Shaman of Columbia University last month to evaluate the U.S. response to the pandemic, he recited a laundry list of failure. The administration supported social distancing and business closures too late, and supported reopening places like restaurants too early. They failed to provide sufficient economic resources to allow people to respond. They left states to fend for themselves and compete for medical resources. “The federal government didn’t task pharma companies here to build diagnostic tests and then flood the market with them the way South Korea did. They didn’t invoke the war production act, and actually build masks, equipment and all the other things that we needed at the scale. They didn’t liberate and maintain the national strategic defence stockpile,” Shaman said. “They didn’t communicate in an evidence-based way to the people,” he went on. They didn’t emphasize the importance of wearing masks.

“They could have rolled up their sleeves and actually done the work, the hard work, of actually dealing with something. But you know, that’s not how Trump and his administration work,” Shaman said.

On the campaign trail, Trump’s message remains that COVID is disappearing — now with promises of an imminent silver-bullet vaccine, and open mockery of those who still insist on social distancing.
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