The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

My rural Pennsylvania neighbors helped Trump win. His inaction is endangering them.

The “white working-class voters” who helped Trump take the White House are now being hit hard by coronavirus.

President Trump meets with industry executives on the coronavirus response in the White House. (Doug Mills/Pool/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

I have lived in Luzerne County, Pa., for most of my life. It’s home to those infamous “white working-class” folks who voted for Donald Trump we heard so much about in 2016. My neighbors who felt disillusioned and abandoned were easily swayed by a candidate who sold them a vision of a “winning” world where he would create an empty swamp and a big, beautiful wall.

Today, those same people are coming down with coronavirus in numbers that medical experts and government officials find alarming. My friends and neighbors are losing what they value most: their health, lives and loved ones. And the president who they voted into office is to blame.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued its first official warning that a case of covid-19 had been detected in the United States on Jan. 21. On Jan. 30, the director general of the World Health Organization declared that the virus outbreak “constitutes a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.” The next day, the U.S. secretary of health and human services declared a public health emergency in this country.

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Meanwhile, Trump acted as though nothing was wrong. He played golf at least a half-dozen times between mid-January and early March and held nine rallies in January and February, and then another March 2. He also made a trip to Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla., in early March, where he hosted fundraisers and a birthday party for his son’s girlfriend.

Rather than offering the nation assurances and information, Trump dismissed concerns and vowed that the virus would disappear “like a miracle.” Instead of drawing on the expertise of the nation’s top scientists and medical experts, he opted to go with his “hunch” that this was no big deal and would have a very low death rate of a fraction of 1 percent.

And now my community is paying the price.

Some of my neighbors work in coal mines, but most work other types of blue-collar jobs, including at the numerous factories and distribution centers in the Hazleton area. Longtime residents fall mostly into that “white working class” category, but Hazleton is now home to a Latino community that makes up more than half of the population, and people there have expressed fear and anxiety about Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric and policies.

This is an area with a high poverty rate. According to data compiled by Lehigh Valley Health Network, 52.3 percent of Hazleton residents are living in poverty. That figure is high enough to meet the benchmark for a federal program that gives all of our public school students free lunch automatically. Roughly 15 percent of residents have no health insurance, and of those with insurance, 36 percent are covered by Medicaid.

The largest employers are the Walmart and the industrial plants and warehouses, where many people work as temps without benefits such as health insurance and paid time off — and where social distancing is impossible, with people working shoulder to shoulder. One local meatpacking plant closed after at least 130 workers tested positive for covid-19.

My area is now one of Pennsylvania’s top hot spots. As of Monday, Luzerne County had 2,035 confirmed cases and 71 deaths. According to data compiled by the Allentown Morning Call, our rate of infection is 567 per 100,000 people, more than twice the statewide average. More specifically, my city of Hazleton has roughly 1,100 confirmed cases of an official population of 25,000. Most everyone agrees that the true population of Hazleton is considerably higher, but even if you double it, that still puts our per capita rate of confirmed cases higher than New York City’s.

“We have a higher per capita than most places in the nation,” Hazleton Mayor Jeff Cusat told a local newspaper. Nearly two weeks ago, Cusat estimated that roughly 3 percent of the city’s population had tested positive, and the numbers have been rising steadily since then.

The numbers are even more troubling when you consider how few residents have been able to get tested. Lehigh Valley Health Network — which runs the city’s only hospital and both of its testing centers — announced this month that even if someone is symptomatic, they would only be able to get tested if they were over 65 or had a serious preexisting medical condition. That leaves plenty of people — including those with serious symptoms — unable to get tested even though they might be infected.

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I was one of those people. Early in the year while on vacation out of state, I experienced sudden and severe symptoms that left me struggling to breathe and unable to stand. This was before covid-19 had officially arrived in this county, although new information continues to push back the timeline, indicating that it was here much earlier than initially believed. My husband rushed me to the hospital, where the doctors were certain I had some kind of virus. It wasn’t the flu, they determined, but beyond that, they were stumped. I haven’t felt quite right ever since, and I tried to get tested for coronavirus a few times over the past six weeks. First, I was told I didn’t qualify because I hadn’t been out of the country. More recently, I was denied because I didn’t have a fever or shortness of breath.

Trump and other White House officials continue to repeat their mantra that “anyone who wants a test can get a test.” This week, he also diverted blame for the lack of testing to governors, saying it’s a state responsibility. The fact is, many people cannot get tested. I have tried and failed. So have my neighbors and relatives.

Instead, even as our numbers here continue to rise, they don’t tell the whole story because so many other residents are sick and undiagnosed. Had the federal response not been so slow and inexcusably inefficient, we might be further ahead in terms of testing and treatment. With a better, faster response, my friends and neighbors might not be getting sick and dying at such a terrifying rate, with no end in sight.

Many people here feel they have no choice but to go to work despite the risk because they can’t afford to go without a paycheck. Others still don’t seem to be taking it seriously, despite the statistics. Earlier this month, city and hospital officials said that less than 20 percent of residents were abiding by social distancing guidelines, although last week, they said things have improved in that area.

For the most part, those who felt passionately on either side about Trump and his policies seem to have only grown more firm in those beliefs since the pandemic began. Those who feared he wouldn’t be up to the task of a major crisis and that he doesn’t care about the most vulnerable Americans see their worst fears coming true, while Trump supporters think he has been the target of overblown hysteria and unfair attacks by the “liberal media” and Democrats. Still, I have seen signs that some who weren’t 100 percent on board with Trump before are now even more skeptical. I’ve also seen a gradual shift among some Trump supporters who have been personally impacted by the crisis, such as first responders who are struggling to get critical equipment.

The irony is that these at-risk Pennsylvanians are the people who Trump needs, because they feed his ego and attend his rallies — including two held at the local Mohegan Sun Arena, about 20 miles away. Trump spent his campaign and first term as president demonizing an array of people, but these are the “forgotten men and women” he highlighted in his inaugural, and he simply forgot about them. If basic human compassion doesn’t motivate Trump and his GOP cohorts to try to help save these people, it seems the desire for political survival should.

After all, the Mohegan Sun Arena where Trump held those two rallies is now a testing center for covid-19.

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