After the horrors of the spring, a Maryland medical team closed its COVID-ICU and posed for a group photo, their bright eyes and uplifted heads attesting to smiles under their masks.
“Today I transferred the last patient out of Covid ICU,” nurse John Haacke wrote when he posted the picture. “This crew exceeded every expectation and kept our ship sailing in some extremely foul weather. Thank all of you and let's keep an eye on the storm just in case.”
That was on June 25. The last patient, a state contact tracer who got sick on the job, had survived and new COVID cases had slowed to where the regular ICU could handle them. COVID deaths nationwide had passed 115,000, but the hard-hit places had learned now to flatten the infamous curve. It seemed we would be able to keep the virus at least somewhat under control while scientists worked on several promising vaccines.
At that point, a true wartime president would have lauded the heroic medical workers and helped us mourn the dead and roused us to stay the course and listen to the scientists and follow the proven mitigating measures. He would have set an example by wearing a mask and reminded us that it was to protect others as well as yourself and was therefore your duty. And in so doing he would have saved thousands of lives.
We instead got a president who sought to minimize the virus even though he was proved to have been made fully aware of the danger back in February. He dismissed the Democrats’ warnings about the pandemic as a “hoax” and made mask-wearing seem part of a scheme to hype a threat that was sure to vanish right after the election.
When Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer began to flatten the curve in her state with a mask mandate and an emergency stay-at-home order in April, Trump tweeted uppercase support for protesters who clamored against the life-saving inconveniences as impositions on their liberty.
The FBI subsequently busted up a far-right conspiracy to kidnap and perhaps kill Whitmer. The plotting is said to have begun before Trump’s tweet, but he certainly did not discourage it.
At the same time, Trump had only praise for South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, whose blind opposition to mask mandates and lockdowns was making her the leading champion of unconscionably selfish recklessness masquerading as freedom. She gave her blessing as hundreds of thousands of maskless bikers went ahead with an annual rally in Sturgis.
The out-of-state participants subsequently spread the virus across the country. Local bikers contributed to South Dakota's position as No. 1 in the nation in per capita COVID cases and per capita deaths. The curve there was continuing to rise in when Trump tweeted, “Great job South Dakota!”
Noem tweeted in response, “Thank you, Mr. President, for giving South Dakota the flexibility to respect Freedom and personal responsibility. We based our decisions on science, facts, and data, and our people stepped up!”
Meanwhile, people everywhere joined her in ignoring the simple precautions, the life-saving value of which had been proven by the actual science, facts, and data. They boisterously endangered others while declaring that they were only exercising their freedom as Americans. Self-described patriots endangered the nation in a time of national emergency as they packed maskless into Trump rallies, waving the flag and spreading more droplets with every chant of “USA! USA! USA!”
In September, the dead included former Army Sgt. John Hamill, who had volunteered at 17 and received a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart while serving as a combat medic in Vietnam in 1968, the same year Trump would have been drafted were it not for his supposed bone spurs. Hamill survived two helicopter crashes and being wounded three times only to die a half-century later of the virus Trump continued to minimize in an effort to maximize his chances for a second term.
Three weeks after Trump was defeated in a dispiritingly close election, Hamill was buried with full military honors in Section 51, grave 1919 at Riverside National Cemetery in California. He was the brother of the writers Pete Hamill and Denis Hamill and a fine writer himself, as well as a good husband, a great father and a loyal friend. He was as decent a person as ever blessed this country. Many of us who loved him and would have attended his funeral had to watch it on Zoom. It ended with the honor guard presenting the folded flag to the deceased’s family along with the traditional words:
“On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States Army and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one's honorable and faithful service.”
A president who was neither honorable nor faithful continued to serve only himself. His self-serving falsehoods spawned a host of dangerous fantasies. Conspiracy theorists convinced that the “scamdemic” is a hoax repeatedly sought to enter a Provo, Utah, ICU, hoping to prove it was not as full as the hospital was saying.
Among the patients who in fact filled the unit was a pediatric intensive care nurse who had contracted COVID from out-of-town visitors who mentioned only after they departed that they had tested positive. She died on Oct. 30, the same day one of the ICU nurses there, Jill Hansen, fell ill.
Hansen was soon after admitted to her own supposed hoax unit. She was subsequently found in need of a double lung transplant and flown to a Gainesville, Florida, hospital where its specialty in the procedure is under increasing demand.
A post-Thanksgiving surge filled hospitals across the country. The COVID-ICU in Maryland whose closure in June had elicited masked smiles had now reopened. Haacke, the Maryland nurse, went on Facebook and returned to a nautical analogy, as befits somebody who has a 30-foot sailboat he christened ETERNA before the pandemic, the RNA in the name a reference to the mRNA technology that he felt sure would transform health care.
“The first wave was obvious and all of us saw it coming,” he said of the spring. “We braced, reefed sail, battened down the hatches, and rode it out. It subsided in mid June. That was nasty. We were heros that kept the boat from capsizing. Yeah us! Great work crew!”
But the post-Thanksgiving surge was different.
“This wave doesn't feel like a wave. It feels like something inside the boat is leaking and the guests are standing on deck talking among themselves. In reality we have more water inside the boat this time than last and the situation is much more dire. We are yelling, ‘keep your life jackets on,’ and they are oblivious and even angry. They are accusing us of lying to them. Some of them think we’re trying to make more money from them by keeping them out longer. Some of them are upset because we can't let them get off the boat yet. Some of them think we're exaggerating how much water we're taking on below deck. Some of them just want the boat to sink because it's inevitable and swim to shore. We're just trying to keep the boat afloat.”
Haacke wondered aloud to The Daily Beast why so many people turn hostile when asked to take simple precautions to stop the spread of a diabolically unpredictable and deadly disease.
“Why are you attacking me for saying you guys need to do better?” he asked. “What am I trying to do to you? I’m just trying to keep people alive.”
Among the patients who arrived in the ICU in early December was a conspiracy theorist who clung to her delusions even when critically ill.
“She said, ‘This is a biological weapon from [left-leaning billionaire George] Soros and the Clintons,’” Haacke recalled.
Two days later, the woman was intubated, and not long afterwards she became the latest COVID fatality.
“She died believing it,” Haacke said. “Her family is still convinced it is a biological weapon… And that’s bizarre and sad.”
Ever more patients arrived in his ICU and in ICUs across the country. Even more people died, hitting a number beyond fully grasping.
“Today we turned 300,000 deaths,” Haacke said on Dec. 14. “Why isn’t that a thing? Why doesn’t the nation stop and respect these people’s lives?”
The toll was more than 1,000 times that of 9/11, which was supposed to have changed everything. The total as of 12/14 seemed to change almost nothing.
“What is going on?” Haacke asked. “Where’s the sympathy and grief for all of these people who have died? Where is the compassion?”
Not a syllable of comfort came from Trump. He only spoke of the pandemic while seeking credit for two mRNA two vaccines that had been designed without government assistance.
The Moderna company, which has the same three letters in its name, had been able to design its vaccine in January, on the weekend after Chinese scientists posted the genetic sequence of COVID-19 online for all to see. Moderna had shipped the first batch of an actual vaccine to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) in Bethesda, Maryland, on Feb. 24. Another promising mRNA vaccine from Pfizer soon followed.
The Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed had in fact expedited the clinical trials and official approvals. But that success had perversely coincided with Trump’s effort to minimize the pandemic and undercut the known precautions. (Maybe call it Operation Warped Speed.)
On Dec. 16, Haacke was vaccinated. He was given an official CDC card reading, “COVID-19 Vaccine Record Card,” with the handwritten notation “Pfizer EH19009.”
But if Haacke had gotten it at warp speed, a warped truth remained: Tens of thousands of lives could have been saved if we had all followed what was established while flattening the curb during that first wave last spring.
“We know that the things work if you look at the data from across the world,” Haacke said. “We’re still arguing about whether to make it work or not. What f---?”
He added, “This is real. This is still happening and this didn't need to happen.”
The day after a Christmas that saw millions of Amercians ignore pleas by public health officials or stay home, Haacke posted a plea of his own on Facebook.
“I'm not going to not make a scene about the 400k healthcare workers infected so far or the 2000 plus that have died. I'm tired of hearing the pain and fear in people's voices that I've known for decades; people that I love. We aren't ‘Heroes,’ we're doing our job. It would be great if you stopped running around like plague rats. We have to round you up and you're getting us sick and killing us.”
Two days later, Haacke was able to get away for a brief sail on the upper Chesapeake Bay in the boat whose name contains the letters that proved as promising as he anticipated and now offered actual hope. He then returned to the ICU, where a post-Christmas surge is expected to hit in the first days of the New Year.
“We won’t see the Christmas surge for about 10 days,” he said on Monday “Just coming off the Thanksgiving surge. So yeah, it's going to get ugly again in about two weeks.”
As ugly as 2020 is ending, and as ugly as 2021 is all but certain to start, we remain a country of heroic health-care workers such as Haacke, along with brave first responders and intrepid scientists and resourceful teachers and helpful neighbors and just plain decent folks.
During the unexpected horror of the spring, what is best in us cheered the health care workers each evening. But what is worst in us betrayed those same heroes and allowed the largely preventable horror of the fall and winter.
All of us owe the health-care workers two words that were offered to Haacke by a 71-year-old patient who had initially seemed unlikely to survive. But the seemingly frail septuagenarian fought on and on until she was able to to come off the ventilator. Haacke removed the breathing tube.
“Hey, are you doing OK?” he asked.
The woman looked at him.
“Thank you,” she said.