Coroner Dr. Charles Preston of St. Tammany Parish reports that the Delta variant has the hospitals there and the rest of Louisiana approaching critical overload, with long lines extending from the emergency rooms.
“A very highly contagious and aggressive beast of a virus,” Preston told The Daily Beast. “Things are at a critical point. I talk like it’s a future event, but it’s actually happening right now.”
He finds a glimmer of hope when he sees some people actually obeying Gov. John Bel Edwards’ renewed mask mandate. And Preston has been watching the vaccination rate in the parish inch up to 42 percent. But there remain far too many people who refuse the shot and shun face coverings. New COVID-19 cases in the parish over the past two weeks have risen by 50 percent, and hospitalizations are up 205 percent.
“We’re still way behind,” he said. “We really need an 80 percent vaccination rate.”
Parish is certain that his fellow Americans would have reacted very differently if the virus had been delivered by a human enemy.
“I’ve said virtually from the beginning that if this virus had come over in a missile and hit the United States and started spreading, everybody would wear a mask, get their shots, socially distance,” Preston told The Daily Beast on Tuesday. “They would do anything to protect the country from an invasion.”
Six months before the pandemic hit, Preston’s hometown of Slidell in the parish had received a poignant reminder of a 1941 attack by a human enemy that roused Americans to respond as one. The remains of 19-year-old Seaman Second Class Charles Gomez had been identified more than seven decades after he perished along with 428 others aboard the USS Oklahoma when it was sunk in a surprise raid by Japanese bombers on Pearl Harbor. Gomez was buried with full military honors in Southeast Louisiana Veterans Cemetery in Slidell on June 3, 2019. It would have been his 97th birthday.
“I do remember that,” Preston said. “And it was done with all the appropriate pomp and circumstances.”
Gomez had two brothers who were among the 16 million Americans who stepped forward and served in the aftermath of the attack. Everybody was expected to do their part to stop the enemy. Anybody who impeded the war effort was liable to be branded a traitor.
More than 405,000 Americans died in World War II. Charles’ two brothers were among the lucky ones who returned safely. They and their mother died before Charles’ remains were identified. His mother reportedly called out his name on her deathbed at the age of 100.
The long delayed burial of Seaman Gomez came at a time when the country was being riven by political differences. But we had proven after Pearl Harbor and again in the aftermath of 9/11 that we could unite as one and set aside our individual differences in a time of national emergency.
A different kind of attack that would elicit a very different response was looming six months away as an honor guard fired three volleys over Gomez’s grave and the mourners dispersed. This enemy would not fly a bomber or hijack a plane but rather ride invisibly on respiratory droplets expelled by an unsuspecting airline passenger.
“Since it came from a person on an airline, it wasn’t seen as an attack on America, which it certainly was,” Preston told The Daily Beast.
In a little less than a year, COVID-19 would kill more Americans than the 405,000 who perished in the war that began for us at Pearl Harbor. Too many of us nonetheless discounted the threat, saying it was no worse than the flu. Can you imagine if somebody had said the Japanese bombers were just mosquitoes?
When we were asked back in 1941 to build new ships along with planes and guns and to face maelstroms of bullets and shrapnel, our universal response was a resolute “Can Do!” A disheartening number of us responded to the present threat with a petulant “Can’t Make Me!” when asked to do nothing more than wear a mask or get a vaccine. And rather than declaring themselves ready to sacrifice all for the sake of others, those who refused were placing everyone around them at risk in order to avoid a little inconvenience.
“I just don’t get why it’s such a big deal to wear a mask,” Preston said. “It really doesn’t make any sense to me at all.”
He added, “People understand sacrificing our young people to protect our liberty, but they don’t understand that wearing a mask is the same thing: protecting our liberty, our liberty, our economy, our whole country.”
He encounters in person and online too many people who were led astray by misinformation and delusion spread largely on social media by charlatans and opportunists.
“Why do you believe Facebook and not all the chief medical officers for the hospitals in St. Tammany Parish?” he asked. “They don’t want to be confused by fact.”
Some on the far right charge that the virus escaped from a lab in China where it was supposedly being developed as a bioweapon. These same people have continually called into question proven methods to mitigate the threat.
For a time in the spring, the danger seemed to recede. But now the Delta variant has swept in. Those in the parish who tested positive included a 57-year-old woman with no previous medical problems.
“Perfectly well, and in four days, she was dead,” Preston said.
A number of devout believers in total nonsense continue to send Preston what he describes as “scary, well produced, very persuasive videos by physicians that really sound like they know what they’re talking about.”
“But when you go back to the original literature, it’s just wrong,” he added. “It’s just patently wrong.”
One woman sent him a number of videos and sought to convince him that people can fight off the virus if they take vitamins and zinc and drink water.
“Clearly, that’s not the case, or infections would not be on the rise in every state in the country,” Preston told The Daily Beast.
Preston allowed the woman to think he was willing to consider the various conspiracy theories she relayed to him.
“And there were two shooters at John F. Kennedy’s assassination,” he then told her.
“That’s right,” she replied. “You know that!”
Preston understands that a good many people are hesitant about the vaccine because they do not trust the government. Some of his own friends offer what he terms “a litany of excuses.”
“From ‘I’m not going to let the government tell me what to do’ to ‘I’ve just been too busy,” he said.
He has a question for people who tell him that they are young and healthy and figure they will beat COVID if they get it.
“What about your next door neighbor’s granddaughter?”
Preston is by training an emergency medicine doctor. And an image that stays with him is of a long line extending from a hospital entrance marked EMERGENCY.
“It just boggles my mind,” he said.
The doctors and nurses inside are exhausted and overburdened, frontline heroes who have been betrayed by those who refuse to do their part in the fight against the virus.
“A year ago, people were lining up at the hospital banging pans to show their appreciation for the health-care workers,” Preston said on Tuesday. “Now people are resistant to putting on a mask.”
He then spoke with the same urgency that united us as one after the long-ago attack that claimed the lives of Seaman Second Class Charles Gomez and so many others.
“This is the moment and hour we need to take action if we’re going to turn the tide in this battle,” Preston said.