The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Covid-19 survivors see callousness, not compassion, in Trump’s bout with the virus

President Trump disembarks Marine One and walks across the South Lawn after returning from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Oct. 5. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Ken Holmes, a retired maintenance worker in Wisconsin, never had much in common with Donald Trump, or much affection for him.

But when the president caught a potentially lethal virus that had nearly killed Holmes this year, the 64-year-old saw a rare opportunity for connection. Trump, Holmes thought, might finally understand what he had come to learn through painful experience: The novel coronavirus is a monster that commands respect.

“He can still make this right,” Holmes thought.

But then Trump stood on the White House balcony Monday night, theatrically ripped off his mask while gasping for breath, and proclaimed the virus was nothing to fear.

Watching at home in Green Bay, Holmes cringed. Then he got mad.

The coronavirus is, in some respects, a great equalizer: Anyone, even the president, can get it.

But rather than bond Trump to the millions of Americans who have suffered from the virus or watched a loved one go through it, Trump’s experience with the virus has only deepened the sense of distance that some voters say they feel from a president who has consistently downplayed its severity.

In interviews, Americans whose lives have been upended by the virus said they felt disappointed that the president missed an opportunity to model responsible behavior. They expressed anger that Trump has continued to minimize the virus’s threat after receiving deluxe care that the vast majority of people can only dream of at a time when testing and treatments are running low. And they voiced fear that Trump’s words and actions would lead to more reckless behavior among his supporters.

“I wish he would just be square with the American people. But he can’t do that,” said Holmes, who spent three weeks in intensive care without access to the advanced therapies that Trump’s doctors deployed. “He says, ‘Don’t be afraid of covid. It’s not that bad.’ Well, he should see what it’s like in the real world.”

Since he got sick, Trump and his advisers have sought to portray his bout with the virus as an asset. The White House produced a dramatic video recounting his return from a weekend at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, fundraising emails touted his triumph over the disease, and Trump himself seemed to suggest his infection had been a personal sacrifice in the name of good governance.

“Nobody that’s a leader would not do what I did,” Trump said in his balcony address before reentering the White House, maskless and infectious.

Trump’s illness has only made him a better president, said Doris Cortese, 81, a fervent supporter who said she has had friends and acquaintances who have contracted the coronavirus — but who has escaped infection herself, despite wearing a mask “only when forced to do so.”

“If you’ve been there and done it, you understand better the people who are going through it,” said Cortese, who leads the Trump Republican Club of Lee County, Fla. “He has always done whatever he could to try to keep Americans safe. Now he has even more empathy.”

But that message does not appear to be resonating beyond his base. Even before Trump’s illness, polls showed strong disapproval of his handling of the pandemic, which has claimed at least 210,000 American lives. His numbers have only worsened in the days since last week’s diagnosis, with surveys showing significant majorities of Americans mistrusting the White House’s messaging — both on Trump’s health and the nation’s.

To doctors treating coronavirus patients, the president’s insistence that Americans should not be “afraid” of the virus or let it “dominate” their lives threatens to make the country’s struggle with covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, even more costly.

“It’s inaccurate, insensitive and because of the fact that he’s the president, it’s dangerous,” said Farshad Fani Marvasti, director of public health at the University of Arizona. “It’s very easy for him to give the impression that this is nothing to worry about. But he’s different. He has access to the highest level of care in the world. Most people don’t have a doctor on call at home 24 hours a day.”

Holmes certainly didn’t. He struggled through the symptoms of covid-19 this spring, with his wife — who still works — caring for him from home. But after a month, his health suddenly turned.

“I couldn’t breathe. My wife said, ‘You’re going to the hospital,’ ” he recounted. “We got to the emergency room, and that’s the last thing I remember.”

For three weeks, he struggled to catch his breath while alarms sounded and his oxygen level repeatedly climbed then plummeted. He was terrified but, ultimately, lucky: The doctors and nurses at HSHS St. Mary’s Hospital in Green Bay were “angels, not just heroes,” he said, and thanks to them, he survived.

But he emerged chastened and weak. Covid-19 was nothing like a cold or the flu, as the president has said. It was an entirely differently level — as he believes Trump knows, even if he won’t admit it.

“I think Trump was real scared. He should have been. He still should be,” Holmes said of the president, who also experienced falling oxygen levels and a need for supplemental help.

“We have nearly 1,000 people a day dying of covid. If you had three jetliners going down every day, would you get on an airplane? I don’t think many people would. But they sure don’t want to wear a mask,” Holmes said.

Trump’s decision to unmask on the White House balcony Monday night, while in full view of photographers, was in keeping with the president’s long-standing aversion to face coverings. That’s despite a nearly unanimous view among public health experts, including Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield, who has deemed masks “the most important, powerful public health tool we have.”

At the heart of dismal U.S. coronavirus response, a fraught relationship with masks

Health experts say Trump’s cavalier behavior — including mask-free rallies and other large-scale events — has led directly to a White House coronavirus cluster that has sickened more than 20 people, including advisers, senators, journalists and military officers. Nonetheless, his dismissive views continue to be embraced by many supporters, who surveys show are far more reluctant than other Americans to wear masks.

In the southwestern Missouri city of Joplin, a bastion of Trump support, mask use has been spotty even as infection rates remain high and testing kits run low. That has been a source of deep concern for people like Stephanie Lea, whose father-in-law nearly died of covid-19 this spring.

“I don’t think we should live in fear,” said Lea, who works as an administrator at Freeman Hospital, where the coronavirus unit has routinely been full since summer. “That said, we need to be very cautious and do what we can to help others by wearing our masks. There’s a difference between living in fear and living cautiously.”

Johnetta Warlick had been trying to do the latter. Working for the Missouri Department of Corrections, she knew she was at risk, so she was careful to wear a mask. The coronavirus found her anyway.

What started as a relentless headache became a fever at or above 102 degrees that wouldn’t break for two weeks.

“It got to the point where I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t walk,” she said. “I thought I was going to die.”

But doctors had no cutting-edge therapeutics to ease her symptoms.

“They told me there was nothing I could do but take Tylenol and let it runs its course,” said the 32-year-old resident of St. Louis County whose main caretaker — her husband, Vernnell — also became ill.

“I wouldn’t wish covid on my worst enemy,” said Warlick, who said she still has symptoms months later. “It’s nothing to joke about. The president should be grateful he didn’t get the real covid.”

Mary Root, a 65-year-old retiree, knows intimately what that looks like.

This spring, her 92-year-old mother contracted the virus at an assisted-living facility in South Dakota. A child of the Great Depression, Marjorie Root raised five children and, until last year, mowed her own lawn. She told anyone who would listen that she planned to live to 100.

When she became ill, she was initially hospitalized, then sent home to live with her daughter. But her ordeal was only beginning. The virus had invaded her nervous system, just one of the many insidious ways it attacks the body.

“Mom was so strong. She didn’t cry, ever. Not even when her son died,” Mary Root said. “But in her final days, I saw her wail like a baby. She died a miserable, excruciatingly painful death.”

Root said she had just begun to recover from the July loss of her mom when Trump’s case brought it all back.

“It’s cruel. People don’t need to suffer the way I watched my mom go,” she said. “He’s got blood on his hands. My mother’s blood on his hands.”

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

New covid variant: The XBB.1.5 variant is a highly transmissible descendant of omicron that is now estimated to cause about half of new infections in the country. We answered some frequently asked questions about the bivalent booster shots.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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