'He's wrong — it's not a hoax, it's not going away by a miracle.'
Medical workers and first responders are in the middle of a war with two fronts — one, a battle against a relentless virus ravaging the globe, the other, against Donald Trump.
At a rural New Mexico hospital, one nurse said she stopped listening to Trump several months ago because she simply "can't do it" anymore.
But her ears perked up when Trump, recovering from COVID-19 himself at the time, told the public earlier this month not to fear the coronavirus, which has killed more than 218,000 Americans and infected over 8 million.
On Oct. 5, announcing he was leaving Walter Reed National Military Medical Center after a three-day stint for aggressive COVID-19 treatment, Trump tweeted, "Don’t be afraid of COVID. Don’t let it dominate your life."
"One thing that's for certain, don't let it dominate you. Don't be afraid of it. … We’re going back to work. We're going to be out front. As your leader, I had to do that. … I know there's a risk, there's a danger, but that's OK," Trump said in a separate video. "Don't let it dominate your lives. Get out there. Be careful."
Patricia Worth, who's worked in hospitals for 56 years and as a nurse for 47 years, blasted those statements and Trump's purported quick recovery.
"This swampy flaunting of his elitist white privilege is deeply insulting to normal, caring citizens," Worth told the American Independent Foundation, adding that Trump's campaign gatherings, which he is still actively holding, violated basic public health principles and state mandates.
This week, Trump blatantly ignored safety guidelines and resumed in-person rallies that experts worry may end up becoming superspreader events, like the Rose Garden celebration for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett last month that led to the throng of infections among White House staffers and guests.
Frontline workers from health care employees to firefighters say Trump is sending the absolute wrong message.
"Oh, my Lord. That’s a very bad recommendation from the president," Dr. Tien Vo, a family medicine specialist in who has administered more than 40,000 coronavirus tests to patients at his California clinics, told the Associated Press in early October.
Worth, still a working nurse at 70 years old, said she's responsible for sharing accurate information and expects the same from taxpayer-funded elected officials.
"Telling the people that you are hired to lead to not fear a virus that can actually kill you or your loved ones, but instead to fear Joe Biden who, guaranteed, will not kill you, is delusional at best and criminal at worst," she said.
The remote New Mexico community nurse, who is part of the state's National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees, added, "It's so crazy-making and heart-wrenching fighting the fallout from his cruel lies and dangerous words."
Across the country, health care and frontline workers had similar sentiments.
"Erin," a travel nurse who works in Arizona, New Mexico, Maryland, and Colorado hospitals, and asked not to be identified by her real name for fear of retribution at work, said Trump's statements are "grossly negligent … selfishly politically motivated and will result in more deaths."
She added that in July, she witnessed at least one patient die a day — sometimes two or three.
Jaunine Nelson, a nurse from Jackson, Mississippi, was "appalled" that Trump would send followers the messages he did. "How dare this man say these things" with his high-level access to care and minimal symptoms, she said.
Nelson has altruistically tried to set an example by wearing her mask in public, but said she has been met with sneers "because [those people] deemed them unnecessary according to President Trump."
Dr. Alyson J. McGregor, a frontline emergency physician, said she regularly sees firsthand the population's range in illness severity and access to healthcare.
"I am grateful that our president seems to have recovered quickly from the SARS-CoV-2 infection, however, I would strongly caution against his recommendation to the general public to 'Get out there,'" said McGregor, an associate professor of emergency medicine at Alpert Medical School of Brown University. "Many people suffer from co-morbid conditions that would seriously compromise their ability to survive."
McGregor, a member and spokeswoman with the American Medical Women's Association, suffered her own tragedy earlier this year when she lost her grandfather to COVID-19.
"[He] died by himself in a nursing home because of the restrictions on visitation," she told the American Independent Foundation. "This type of suffering is what many of us are faced with."
Trump's state-of-the-art medical treatment is still not available to average Americans, many cautioned.
Lillie Sandoval, a retired nurse and treasurer of the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees, noted that some of Trump's treatments were experimental and not yet available to the masses.
"Just because he is saying do not be afraid... people should still be afraid. The pandemic is not over," she said, warning that some patients could also have lasting effects that appear later.
Also fighting on the frontlines against the deadly virus are firefighters, paramedics, and EMTs, who warn that the public must still take precautions to protect themselves, and that comments to the contrary are "reckless."
The International Association of Fire Fighters said that 17 of its members alone had died from COVID-19 already, while 127 had been hospitalized. Nearly 2,800 members have tested positive for the virus.
"Firefighters and emergency medical professionals have realized over the past several months the seriousness of the COVID-19 virus," the group said in a statement to the American Independent Foundation. "It is clear that we must continue to take proper precautions to keep our members, their families, and the communities they protect safe from this pandemic. Any assertion otherwise is reckless and ignores the harsh reality that this is a serious national and international public health emergency."
In other parts of the country, frontline workers are condemning Trump's refusal to abide by basic virus safety measures or downplay their necessity.
"Masks should have never been politicized," said Chelsea Walsh, a COVID-19 outbreak travel nurse who has worked in emergency and intensive care units in New York City, New Jersey, Arizona, and Texas since the pandemic hit.
Sandoval, the retired nurse, said that, as a healthcare worker, it saddens her that Trump does not follow science, set an example for his followers, or regularly "wear a mask at the very least."
"My heart aches for this country," Nelson said separately, confounded by why some "only care about their way of life and not the loss of life." She said she was so discouraged by the public's "self-destructive behaviors" that she contemplated leaving nursing altogether.
Included in that loss of life are nearly 1,300 health care workers who have died fighting the coronavirus.
According to "Lost on the Frontline," a reporting project from the Guardian and Kaiser Health News, among the 1,293 health care worker deaths reported as of Oct. 14, at least 31% had expressed concerns about inadequate personal protective equipment (PPE). Around 36% were nurses, with the death toll including physicians, first responders, hospital technicians, and other health care workers, according to the project.
Frontline workers are "paying with our lives" in caring for everyone else, Nelson said.
After working in the field for nine years, Nelson thought she had seen everything until COVID-19 hit. While working at a facility overrun with the virus, Nelson claimed she and the staff didn't have proper PPE, leaving them with no way to protect themselves or their families when they went home. Nearly 100% of the staff became infected in what she described as "a very scary situation."
"There were coworkers that coded on the floor," she said.
Patients died with no dignity, no comfort measures, and could not be with their loved ones in their final moments, she recalled.
Liza Billings, a New York City nurse, told ABC News on Oct. 5 that Trump's message to the public — to not let the virus "dominate" them — was "callous and dangerous [...]."
"[That] remark that will do nothing to stop this horrifying pandemic," she said, calling it a "slap in the face" to those grieving a loved one as well as those working on the front line of the crisis.
Dr. Chris T. Pernell, a New Jersey doctor, told CNN around that same time that COVID-19 had stolen her father's life.
He died just four miles from the hospital where she worked. Trump's comments only added insult to injury, she said.
"How do you say that? My father is gone. ... I will never see my father on this side of the earth again," she added.
Meanwhile, the "lack of coordinated, evidence-based, national leadership" in the face of the pandemic has only made worse an already "staggering tragedy," Worth said this week.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Trump has repeatedly downplayed the danger, telling the public that the flu was much more deadly, and then later saying “I don't want to create a panic," even as he knew how dire the threat really was.
At a Feb. 26 press briefing, Trump said, "It's going to disappear. One day — it's like a miracle — it will disappear."
During a Feb. 28 campaign rally in Charleston, South Carolina, Trump called criticism of his coronavirus response a "hoax" pushed by his political opponents.
"He's wrong — it's not a hoax, it's not going away by a miracle, we won't have a vaccine 'soon,' it's not a matter of willpower to surmount the symptoms or the grief," said Worth.
Trump "failed us all," Nelson said. The more than 218,000 deaths so far could have been prevented.
For her part, Erin said she suffers from PTSD and nightmares about caring for ailing patients and telling families their loved ones died alone, scared, and "gasping for air."
Didi Gray, a nurse from Vancouver, Washington, said she hoped for some sort of unity to help remedy the spiraling situation.
She urged against making the pandemic political, advocating instead for people to stand up to protect each other and vulnerable populations with "little sacrifices."
"Wear a mask, wash your hands, stay apart when you can, and let us slow the spread of this awful virus," said Gray, a member of the Washington State Nurses Association.
"Let’s act safely, be respectable role models, and proudly save lives together."
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.