This week, El Paso, Texas, approached a breaking point. On Monday and Tuesday alone, the city reported 1,550 and 994 new cases of COVID-19, respectively, bringing the total to about 76,000 cases this year. The situation has reportedly been dire for about a month, leading to echoes of March and April: makeshift morgues and hospitals stretched to their limits. Back then, though, information about the pandemic was scant and scattered, with no one quite sure what could be trusted and what couldn’t, especially with a serial liar in the White House. This time around, opinions on COVID-19 have calcified, leading to bizarre and eerie scenarios for health care workers across the country. El Paso–based nurse Ashley Bartholomew recently tweeted that when she checked in on a patient who was “awake and alert,” the news was on, “El Paso in the national headlines again for needing more freezer truck morgues.… He mentions hating ‘fake news’. He says, ‘I don’t think covids is really more than a flu.’”
“I clarified, ‘Now you think differently though?’ He replies, ‘No the same. I should just take vitamins for my immune system. They (news) are making it a big deal.’ … I’m at a loss for words. Here I am basically wrapped in tarp, here he is in a Covid ICU. How can you deny the validity of covid? …Misinformation is literally killing people [en masse].”
In the midst of what has become a deadly second wave impacting virtually every state, the line from the White House and conservative media—COVID is nothing to worry about—seems to have sunk in to stay, even among COVID patients. The result is essentially a fracturing of information, and a cohort of people who exist in an alternate reality. “I’ve encountered patients who don’t think COVID is real or a big deal,” Bartholomew told me. “It’s strange and shocking. How can someone be in the COVID ICU and [deny] the severity of COVID? We can’t fight the pandemic of misinformation and the pandemic of COVID at the same time. That’s too heavy.”
It’s a burden that carries consequences. Gigi Perez, a California–based nurse who’s actively treating COVID-19 patients, told me, “The COVID-19 unit I work in has already lost seven nurses in the last three months due to the burnout from managing these types of patients.” In the last two weeks, Perez said, nine of her fellow health care workers have contracted COVID-19. Workers are “beginning to resent the public for not doing their part to help control the pandemic,” she said.
Perez, who said she recently became symptomatic and is awaiting the results of her own COVID-19 test, told me she was once bullied by a patient for wearing personal protective equipment. “I was taking care of a trauma patient [in the non-COVID-19 area] and I was wearing my N95 mask to protect myself,” she recalled. “He proceeded to verbally mock me and said, ‘Take off your mask. What’s the matter, are you a Democrat or something?’ I explained it was for my protection against COVID-19 and had nothing to do with politics, but he continued to harass me about wearing a mask.” She added, “Every single person I have encountered who was misinformed on COVID-19 referenced the president’s dishonesty on Fox News or social media. For Americans to believe a politician over experts is horrifying to us nurses on the front lines. This is insane. I have never seen anything like it.”
“It’s become apparent that a minority of people in the U.S. either do not believe coronavirus is real, calling it a ‘plandemic,’ or doubt its seriousness,” said Justin Shafa, M.D., a chief radiology resident in New York City who has treated COVID-19 patients. That “likely compounded the issue we are facing and result[ed] in thousands of unnecessary deaths. I look at our country and ask, why did it have to be this bad?”
An infectious disease doctor who asked to remain anonymous told me he had never before experienced politics overshadowing science in the medical field. “Before [Donald] Trump I never spoke politics in the clinic room,” he said. “There is no doubt that COVID splits into fact-free and factful worlds. This is why we have a raging epidemic: it’s the Trump bubble.”
“Viruses don’t care about human truth—they only care about biology,” he added. “We are in a hyperendemic right now. It’s everywhere. It’s exponential. It’s in all parts of the country: the suburbs, the cities, the mountains…it’s everywhere.”
Jeremy Samuel Faust, M.D., an emergency physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and faculty at Harvard Medical School, proposed “two main reasons why people fail to recognize how serious this disease is. First, the law of numbers. So far, around 3.5% of the country have knowingly been infected. Of those, 250,000 have died. This is a gargantuan number for an infectious disease in nine months of spread, especially in a developed economy. But it’s also only one in 1,300 Americans. So outside of dense areas, any given person is unlikely to know anyone who died.” The second reason, of course, is related to messaging. “Officials all the way up to the president have at various times downplayed this as just another flu or a hoax.”
But one doctor said both sides of the political aisle are to blame. “You have two very polar-opposite expressions of what is going on, each with a degree of truth to them,” said Nicholas Caputo, M.D., the associate chief of the department of emergency medicine for NYC Health + Hospitals/Lincoln. “On one hand you have an idea put forth that the virus is not truly devastating to the general public, and to a degree that is true. On the other hand you have the idea that the virus is extremely deadly and we need to lock down, and to a degree this is true. For the at-risk population, the disease can be fatal; more fatal than to those people who are healthy, younger, and not immunocompromised. Really, it’s trying to get each person to understand their role in mitigating the spread of the disease, thereby protecting those at-risk people.”
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