The president emerged from Walter Reed Medical Center, where he was being treated for COVID-19, and once again minimized the severity of the virus, which affects everyone differently.
John Walter fought as hard as he could. He endured a nearly three-week hospitalization at Mt. Sinai Hospital in Manhattan and received plasma donations that helped prolong his life. But, ultimately, the 80-year-old New Yorker passed away from COVID-19 on May 10, making him one of the more than 210,000 Americans to succumb to the devastating disease brought on by the novel coronavirus.
Brian Walter, John’s 46-year-old son, has spent the past several months grieving his father’s loss. Walter’s mourning process became more difficult this week, however, when President Donald Trump emerged from Walter Reed Medical Center, where he was being treated for COVID-19, and once again minimized the severity of the virus.
“Don’t be afraid of it. You’re going to beat it,” Trump, who was not wearing a mask, said in a video message recorded at the White House on Monday. “Don’t let it dominate. Don’t let it take over your lives. Don’t let that happen.”
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Trump’s comments angered Walter and many other survivors like him. He, along with his mother, also battled COVID-19.
“It’s a pretty hard slap in the face to anyone that has gone through as much as my family has gone through,” Walter told COURIER. “Congratulations for having a mild case, but that doesn’t mean it’s not serious for other people.”
Trump’s rhetoric was reckless, dangerous, and only deepened his grief, he continued. “He’s adding fuel to the fire that all of us COVID victims have been dealing with for months now, where we have to not only grieve our losses, but we also have to defend against these people that call it a hoax or a conspiracy.”
Buoyed by Trump’s dismissiveness and much of the right-wing media’s deluge of misinformation about the virus, millions of Americans convinced themselves of myths that the virus did not exist, that the death toll had been exaggerated, or that the virus was intentionally released as part of a conspiracy.
“For him to come out and say that it’s not a big deal and he fought it and he was fine—we don’t even know if he is actually over it because the process is so long. It doesn’t just go away after two days,” Walter said, adding that Trump had “amazing care [that] the average person would not be able to get in any situation.”
Indeed, the president had a large team of doctors at Walter Reed and even his own wing. He was also given the antiviral medication remdesivir, the steroid dexamethasone, and an experimental antibody cocktail from the drug maker Regeneron to treat his symptoms.
Trump praised the doctors responsible for his care, but seemed not to grasp that he received special treatment that is not available to most Americans. “We have the best medical equipment,” he said. “We have the best medicines, all developed recently.”
On Wednesday, Trump portrayed the antibody cocktail as a miracle cure and said he would make the treatment, which has not yet been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, free and available to anyone who needs it. He did not explain how he would do so. Regeneron, which has applied for an emergency use authorization for the drug cocktail, has said it will only have enough initial doses for 50,000 people. The company is hoping to have enough for 300,000 people by year’s end, and the medication is expected to be provided for free.
But those projections contrast Trump’s hefty promises of care.
Walter agrees that president of the United States needs to be protected and taken care, but lamented that Trump received care that “the average person would not be able to get in any situation.”
“You can’t even fathom the fact that there are so many options that were available to him that just aren’t available to anyone else. My father was lucky enough that he was in a great hospital [where] they took care of him,” he said. “But you don’t know how many other things were out there that he didn’t have access to.”
In fact, that Trump simply had access to a hospital is a luxury many COVID-19 patients haven’t been afforded.
When 16-year-old Heather Castro contracted the coronavirus in March, she suffered a burning sensation in her eyes, felt hot, and had what she described as “the worst headache.”
“I felt like I was going to die,” she told COURIER. “It felt horrible.”
And yet, because she was infected during the early days of the pandemic—when confusion and panic reigned—hospitals refused to accept Heather. They instructed her mother, 36-year-old Rachel Maurice, to instead care for her daughter at their Menifee, California home.
“The doctors didn’t want to see or treat my daughter at that time,” Maurice said. “They said, ‘Oh she’s 16, she’ll be able to get through it. It’s just going to be a really rough couple days.’ That’s a parent’s worst nightmare. I have no medical background and to basically have my daughter’s life in my hands … It was really scary.”
Maurice had to take time off work to care for Heather, who was isolated in one section of their home away from the rest of the family. Maurice, who has type-one diabetes and is considered high-risk for COVID-19, had to take significant precautions, including feeding her daughter separately and staying at least 10 feet away. Providing care in this distant way was extraordinarily difficult.
“I lost a lot of sleep over it,” Maurice said. “A mom doesn’t care for her child that way.”
While Heather survived her bout with COVID-19, Maurice has lost an uncle and several co-workers to the disease. Like Walter, she said Trump’s downplaying of the virus has rubbed her the wrong way.
“Having been so fully impacted the way we have been, it’s hard to hear somebody else seem nonchalant about it,” Maurice said.
Both Walter and Maurice are members of COVID Survivors for Change, a nationwide network of COVID-19 survivors and families affected by the virus who are sharing their stories in order to advocate for a better response to the pandemic. They both said they felt like there hadn’t really even been a national response, given Trump’s constant misinformation and failure to spearhead a federal response.
“We should have one cohesive response,” Maurice said. “I wish we could come together and come up with some cohesive thing and put all the politics aside.”
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Instead, the Trump administration’s response has largely been driven by politics. The president admitted he ordered a testing slowdown because he didn’t want more cases to be discovered, and has repeatedly blamed “blue states” for the virus. Trump’s son-in-law and top aide Jared Kushner even reportedly decided against a national testing strategy because they viewed the virus as a Democratic problem. As of Friday, 12 of the 13 states with the highest number of cases per capita are led by Republican governors.
In the absence of a coordinated federal response, Walter, Maurice, and others are left to advocate on their own. Walter encouraged people to wear masks and take the virus seriously, even if they hadn’t personally experienced it.
“Even if it doesn’t affect you at all, that doesn’t mean that it is not real,” Walter said. “Just because you don’t know someone that died of COVID or that got sick, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t people getting sick and dying.”
Maurice opted to fill another void left by the president: providing comfort to those who’ve lost friends and family members to COVID-19.
“I want to share as a mom, as a loved one that’s been impacted by this—I hope that others out there know that there are people that care. There are people that want something better for you, and I’m really sorry for your loss. We’re the ones that suffer in the end,” she said. “It’s real, human life.”
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