“Roger, I have some difficult news for you.”
It was the director of my mother’s memory care facility. The date was November 12, 2020.
“Your mom has tested positive for the COVID virus. So far, her symptoms are mild.”
The news was not unexpected. Earlier, he told me that another resident in my mother’s wing of the facility had tested positive. Nor did I expect her symptoms to remain mild. They didn’t. Ten days later, on November 22, he called to say that my mother had passed away.
To date, more than 400,000 families have had similar calls as parents, children, friends, and colleagues have learned about a death from COVID. There are perhaps another 200,000 of these calls to come. How did this happen?
Despite so many declarations about this crisis being unprecedented, similar crises have happened before. From 1918 to 1920, the Spanish Flu killed 50 million worldwide and 675,000 in the U.S. (CDC.gov).
In 1918, the United States had few public health assets. Medical education was nascent. There was limited knowledge of the germ theory, no antibiotics, poor medical hygiene protocols, limited communications to share best practices, poor supportive care, no antiviral medications, limited medical transport capabilities, and the understanding of viruses was in its infancy. The result was more than 600,000 dead in 36 months (PBS.org).
Yet here in 2020, with better medical training, better practices, better education, better pharmaceuticals, better testing, better vaccines, and better medical facilities, we have more than 400,000 dead in just 11 months (CDC.gov).
For all of humankind’s intelligence, innovation, and adaptability, it turns out that a virus is smarter, more adaptable, and more ruthless than we are.
COVID-19 is a perfectly evolved killing machine. From an unknown, animal host, it spilled over into the human race. It will be hard, much harder than we currently understand, to remove it from the human reservoir.
COVID-19 preys on human weaknesses within the human body, but also in human behaviors. And it’s the latter part of that equation that explains how this mighty nation is now losing more people per day to this virus than we lost per day during the height of World War II.
It’s often been said that the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist. Well, the greatest trick COVID-19 ever pulled was getting people to believe it wasn’t deadly. Even now, after the death of nearly half a million people, there are millions of people who believe the whole virus scare is a hoax and millions more who think it’s no worse than the common cold or the flu. For the record, it is real and it is a killer that is worthy of respect and avoidance. So, why is it that day after day there are clips of people screaming in the middle of stores that wearing a mask is an infringement on human rights?
Conspiracy theories have always been with us. Please understand that Paul McCartney is very much alive and American astronauts landed on the moon. However, conspiracies have never been embraced, indeed worshipped from a sitting U.S. president with as much relish and delight as they were by Donald J. Trump.
Trump told Bob Woodward that he always wanted to downplay the virus. He claimed hydroxychloroquine was a cure even though science clearly showed it wasn’t. He tweeted to ‘liberate’ Michigan in an attempt to get that state’s governor to ‘open’ the economy long before it was wise to do so. He said people should investigate using bleach internally to clean the lungs and suggested using light inside the body to prevent the disease. He tried to silence scientists, neglected meetings, and refused to believe there was a threat.
It would be easy to explain such moves as a desperate attempt to get reelected. For all of his obvious and dangerous traits, Trump is a skilled politician who knows who his base is. He recognized that shutting down the economy, even in the attempt to lessen the course of viral transmission, was sure to hurt his chances at a second term, so he was very much motivated to ignore the obvious threat of the disease and act like the virus did not present a clear danger.
Many people believed the message he was sending. There was push back on mandatory mask rules from the very start of the pandemic, and demonstrations against stay-at-home orders. Worse, there was a rush to reopen states far too quickly leading to a massive surge in the summer of 2020, and another one in the winter of 2020-2021. Devotees flocked to Trump’s campaign events with nary a mask in sight. Some estimates are that more than 30,000 people died after attending those campaign events, though the true number may never be known.
Why did the lie that COVID-19 isn’t a deadly disease take hold? Because many citizens wanted to believe it. They were incited to ignore and defy the disease. Trump stirred up anger by preying on followers who wanted to believe in conspiracies and had little trust in their government. He exploited their rage to gin up election support. It’s possible that a different leader, a calmer, rational, and compassionate president could have advocated for stronger virus suppression measures and slowed transmission rates resulting in far fewer deaths. But we didn’t have that. We had Trump, who unleashed hatred and distrust, and the virus exploited that weakness and spread far and wide. COVID-19 is a smart virus. Like all living things, it has a desire to survive. To do that, it needs human hosts. Trump’s behavior and message gave the virus an opportunity, and the virus took it. No other country has had anywhere near our death toll.
The lies, that COVID isn’t deadly and that it will just disappear, are so powerful they are still killing people. Those lies killed my mom. Her memory care center approached the disease with a strict understanding of the risk it posed. Visitations from non-residents were ended for five months, then reopened with only outdoor visits behind plexiglass. Employees were tested weekly and every day they received a text message asking them to answer questions about potential risks. Did they have any symptoms, had they engaged in any risky behavior? On the day the virus entered my mother’s facility, one worker got tested and answered the questions in the text message. Two of the questions were, “have you been indoors with any group of people who do not live with you?” and “have you been indoors with a group of people who do not live with you without a mask on?” The worker answered ‘no’ to both those questions, even though the answer was really ‘yes.’ Two days later, the test results came back positive, and the worker was sent home. But it was too late. In that wing of the facility, all 16 residents tested positive, as did all 10 employees. Nine residents died, one staff member died, and two staff members, both in their twenties, were hospitalized with heart problems from the virus. One still hasn’t recovered fully.
Asked why he lied on the texts, the employee said, “I didn’t think this late in the year the virus was a problem. Everyone was saying it was not a problem.” In reality, most people were not saying that, but they were saying it on Fox News. How many died because they believed the lies is hard to gauge. I suspect it’s the vast majority of the deaths.
So how do we move forward? We have to go back to the start and begin respecting this virus, which is currently evolving into more easily transmitted variants.
The government to date has failed to slow the virus down. The early shutdowns, while they temporarily lowered transmission rates, were not properly funded. Which is to say they didn’t provide enough incentives for people to stay home. And though the former president was wise to speed up vaccine development, in the final two lame duck months, he simply gave up dealing with the pandemic, or anything else, and dropped the ball on the initial distribution of the vaccines.
Now, a new administration is in charge. They have demonstrated that they fully understand that eradicating the virus is their primary focus. They have the knowledge, assets, and will to do the job. What they need is time.
You can help. For all our scientific and medical acumen, the best ways to help end the pandemic are the same ways that worked in the 14th century against the plague and in 1918 against the Spanish Flu. Wear a mask when in public, keep socially distanced, wash your hands frequently, never put your hands to your face, stay home if you feel sick or test positive, work remotely if you can. And, when your opportunity comes up, get a vaccine. Don’t get me started on anti-vaxxers. Though, in one of life’s little ironies, I believe many anti-vaxxers will gladly get a COVID-19 vaccine. Being fashionably ignorant is really fun until it’s Russian roulette with your life.
I loved my mother. I miss her more than I can say.