From the basement where he is self-quarantined, CNN anchor Chris Cuomo looked into his camera and said Tuesday night’s show was going to be a little different. And it was.
“I tested positive,” he said, with white drywalls, comfy beige armchairs and a forbidden staircase in the backdrop. “Scary, yes, as you might imagine. But better me than you."
Throughout Tuesday’s episode of “Cuomo Prime Time,” the host shared his fears about the uncertainty that lies ahead for both him and the country, melding his own experience into the larger story consuming Americans.
He wondered whether the tightness in his chest was the virus “or the choking concern of my inability to do what matters most,” to care for his family. He worried about infecting them and wondered how long it would be until he could embrace them again. But he was hesitant to talk at length about himself, feeling that his own story “is so small compared to what so many of us are facing.”
Still, his first guest, a doctor and CNN’s chief medical correspondent, Sanjay Gupta, appeared visibly concerned for his friend and colleague, wanting to know more about his symptoms. “You just mentioned tightness in your chest,” said Gupta. “We don’t have to do it right now, but I’m going to call you,” Gupta said. “I’m going to ask you more about that.”
Cuomo insisted he was doing okay so far. He said he wanted the news of his diagnosis to serve as an example. If he could get it, he said, you could, too.
“This is a fight. It’s going to get worse. We’re going to suffer. And you have to accept that not with fear, but with almost a fanatical sense of passion to fight. Because that’s the only way you’ve ever made it through anything hard in your life, and this will be no different. Let me be proof,” he said. “We have real vulnerability.”
The show drew streams of well wishes and tears from loyal viewers Tuesday night. Even Tucker Carlson, Cuomo’s cable television arch nemesis of sorts, wished “Godspeed to the Cuomo family” during his Tuesday night show on Fox News, saying, “We are rooting for you.”
Some viewers thought Cuomo looked paler than usual. They thought he looked a little tired, wearing casual clothes as opposed to his usual suit and tie. But “watching @ChrisCuomo anchor despite being positive for #COVID19 is for some reason comforting and speaks to his character,” Matt Hughes, the town commissioner of Hillsborough, N.C., wrote on Twitter.
Cuomo didn’t miss a beat. His theme for the night centered on why the nation needed to take seriously the urgent pleas from government officials to stay home — using himself as the occasional Exhibit A — while bringing on guests who would drive that message home.
The first was Gupta, the doctor who has guided millions of CNN viewers through numerous public health crises, although none as big as this one. Gupta knows Cuomo personally, and that much was clear Tuesday. In between answering Cuomo’s questions, Gupta was also checking on his friend’s health, telling him, “I really feel for you.”
Cuomo described what he said has been the scariest feeling of all for him, one “that I didn’t realize until basically today.” And that was the lack of control. There is no proven medication to make the virus go away, Gupta said, leaving those fighting it unsure of how long the insidious illness will last.
“This is not where you want to be,” Cuomo said. “I mean, look, my basement is great. It’s not going to be a hardship. But I can’t go hug my kids. I can’t be with my family. I can’t go out and get anything for them. And I don’t know what’s going to come next. … I want people to avoid that — and the bittersweet thing, Sanjay, is that they can. They can avoid it.”
By staying home, the doctor and host agreed. It may be “our best, if not our only chance of avoiding long-term suffering,” Cuomo said.
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) was the next guest. He said the federal government has provided only about 10 percent of the medical equipment his state requested. “I’m looking all over the world for ventilators. I’m purchasing every ventilator that I can find. … We’re going to run out of ventilators, and the federal government is not helping,” Pritzker said.
But perhaps the most moving segment was with a young registered nurse named Carley Rice, who works in the intensive care unit with coronavirus patients at a hard-hit hospital in Albany, Ga.
There are days when she arrives at the hospital to find that patients she had been caring for the day before are gone, Rice said. There are days when she makes the FaceTime calls for patients to their families who are afraid that each one might be goodbye, because they can’t be there to hug their loved ones in person.
“With me being so young, I didn’t ever think I would see this amount of deaths all at one time,” Rice told Cuomo. “I mean you think about it — throughout your nursing career, you’re going to see a bunch of them. But all at one time … I don’t know how to explain the feelings that I have for it. I just … sorry.”
“Sorry?” Cuomo responded. “Listen, you are the best of us. So many families are going to be given a gift by you that nobody else could. And it is so sad, and it is tragic, and it is wrong that that is put on you, but that is why we call you guys heroes.” He said he was only sorry that she had to be in this position.
“I’m not,” Rice said. “I was led here. This is my journey, and this is what God wants me to do, so I will do it with my faith and my head held high and do what I need to do for y’all’s family and my family and the community.”
“With me being so young I didn’t ever think that I would see this amount of deaths all at one time,” a critical care nurse at a hard hit hospital in Georgia tells @chriscuomo in an emotional interview. “I don’t know how to explain the feelings that I have for it.” pic.twitter.com/TGPdHQ83Lb— Cuomo Prime Time (@CuomoPrimeTime) April 1, 2020
Cuomo looked as if he was going to cry.
In his closing argument minutes later, Cuomo also described the “added oddity” of watching his older brother, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) — whom the CNN host called “Captain Banana Hands” — looking deeply concerned as he announced the diagnosis on live television.
The host urged people to not worry so much about tracking the frightening death toll and exponentially growing number of infections and to instead worry about the choices they’re making.
But mostly, he tried to describe that eerie feeling familiar to all of us.
“I don’t know if you agree with me, but more than anything else, this situation is just so weird. Right? Isn’t that the word that just keeps coming up?” he said. “We’re just like living a sci-fi thriller, and it turns out that fact is stranger than fiction, right? That’s the reality. So many of the traditional differences among us are disappearing. Why? Because we’re all in the same bucket, stuck in the house, sharing fears, sharing worries about providing and wellness and leadership. Feelings of doubt. Can this really be as daunting as everyone seems to think now?
“Well, on that question,” he said, “let me serve as confirmation of the reality: You can get this,” he said, before soon handing off to anchor Don Lemon, and retreating somewhere into his basement.