Pregnant Medical Worker Blames Michigan MAGA Rally for Her Family’s COVID-19 Outbreak
The president’s re-election campaign came to Muskegon, and months of being careful got thrown out the window.
When 86-year-old Roger Knop’s granddaughter had her first dinner with her family in months, they hugged and passed around pizza slices.
She had no idea she’d been exposed to COVID-19.
It was mostly a normal pandemic Wednesday in Muskegon, Michigan. But they were celebrating a special event: The health-care worker announced she was pregnant.
Despite months of caution, she awoke the next day, Oct. 22, with a scratchy throat and a runny nose.
“I thought maybe I’d missed my daily Zyrtec, but I called my [obstetrician]’s office, and they suggested I get tested for COVID-19, since I’m around it at work,” the radiologic technologist at a local hospital told The Daily Beast this week. She asked to remain anonymous because she hadn’t been cleared by the hospital to speak to the press and feared professional retaliation.
“But I didn’t think I had it,” she continued. “They took me off the COVID floors as soon as I found out I was pregnant, and I haven’t treated any suspected cases. They kept me off anybody even under investigation or getting tested. I was mostly going up to the ICU with patients who have already tested negative, and I was doing their chest X-rays. If they were intubated, I wore an N95 mask.”
A few days later, the results came back: She’d tested positive.
“I have been super careful, but it is so contagious,” she said. “I was completely in shock.”
But once she thought about it, it was easy to connect the dots, or at least speculate how she contracted the disease that had killed 235,347 Americans as of Friday.
Knop’s granddaughter and several members of her family believe they got COVID-19, albeit indirectly, because of a mask-skeptical campaign rally held in the area by the president the weekend before their dinner. Trump, after all, has presided over superspreader events and embraced conspiracies over science at virtually every turn.
Their experience showed that, even if he’s doomed to be a one-term president, Trump’s handling of the pandemic isn’t nearly done wreaking havoc on everyday Americans.
Trump held a packed event with thousands of supporters at the Muskegon County Airport on Oct. 17. There were masks and sanitizer handed out to attendees, but “mixed” mask use among the crowd, according to MLive.com. As exposure to the virus also depends on length of time in close proximity to an infected party, it’s worth noting that Trump’s speech lasted more than 90 minutes.
A Stanford University study published last month by a group of economists found that 18 of President Trump’s campaign rallies—held between June 20 and Sept. 22—had resulted in more than 30,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the areas where they took place. And, the study concluded, they were likely to have caused more than 700 deaths among attendees or close contacts of people who attended.
To be clear, several epidemiologists urged caution in extrapolating too much from the Stanford study, and others raised serious caveats.
But an analysis by the left-leaning Center for American Progress had similar findings, just a few days before the Stanford Study was published. Another published in Stat News found “[s]pikes in COVID-19 cases occurred in seven of the 14 cities and townships where these rallies were held,” and another in USA Today reported that “COVID-19 cases grew at a faster rate than before after at least five” of Trump’s rallies.
The nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, has repeatedly said that the president’s choice to hold rallies—both indoors and outdoors—without social distancing was “asking for trouble.” Requests for comment from Trump’s campaign were not returned on Friday.
“The rally increased cases, and a lot of people weren’t wearing masks,” Knop’s granddaughter told The Daily Beast. “Some of my patients in Muskegon think COVID is a hoax. I took X-rays on a few people wearing MAGA hats who told me that COVID is ‘just another flu.’”
Even worse, her exposure could have come from coworkers, she said.
“I was watching it, and I know some of my coworkers went to the rally,” she said. “I saw the live videos on Facebook and Instagram. They were sandwiched in with each other, shoulder-to-shoulder.”
In a statement on Friday, Mercy Health Muskegon said that it does not share “specific numbers” of employees who are currently out sick with COVID-19 but that “the communities we serve are seeing a significant increase in COVID-19, including in our more rural areas.”
“Most often, these cases are due to the community spread of social interactions when people were closer than six feet and masks were not worn,” said the statement. “To keep our own patients and employees safe, our hospitals and health care facilities continue requiring staff, patients, and visitors to follow public safety protocols, including mask-wearing, screenings upon entry to our facilities, and limitation of visitors.”
In the days after Knop’s granddaughter’s results came in, her symptoms worsened.
“I was super congested, I had a cough, and then I developed body aches and joint pain like I had been in a car accident,” she told The Daily Beast. “My whole chest hurt.”
Of course, she had plenty of reasons to worry.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released two new reports last Monday finding that pregnant women who contracted the novel coronavirus were more likely to become severely ill and die from COVID-19. They were also at increased risk for premature delivery, the reports said.
Luckily, Knop’s granddaughter was recovering well, she told The Daily Beast, and she planned to return to work as soon as she was no longer contagious.
Meanwhile, her husband began to have a dry cough, and lost his sense of taste and smell, she said. And her 67-year-old mother and 68-year-old father developed fevers on-and-off, up to 104 degrees, the couple told The Daily Beast. Her mother said she confirmed her diagnosis through a COVID-19 test.
The pair have had headaches, nausea, diarrhea, joint aches, and a persistent cough. Over the phone on Friday, the 67-year-old coughed repeatedly while describing how “frustrating” it had been to see the virus called a hoax.
“I don’t think people realize,” she said. “They blow it off. So far, knock on wood, we’re not critically ill, but it’s still a devastating illness. We’re on day 11, and there’s no end in sight. Last night my husband, once again, had a temperature of 104. We’re not hospitalized, but it’s still not easy.”
Eighty-six-year-old Knop experienced symptoms too, though he hadn’t been tested to confirm that they were from COVID-19. He told The Daily Beast he’d developed “a sense of general malaise” and a “recurring daily fever of about 101.”
“Usually I’m off doing all sorts of stuff, but I don’t have ambition,” he told The Daily Beast, adding that he was hoping his symptoms didn’t worsen.
Though his daughter and granddaughter were able to get tested with referrals from their doctors, Knop had a more difficult time finding access.
“It’s just terrible trying to get tested,” Knop said. “But I’m working on it.”
Several of the local testing sites in the area, including the local hospital, say on their web pages that they require an appointment and a doctor’s referral to obtain a COVID-19 diagnostic test. The hospital notes that “testing is available and open to all community members” once they clear those two hurdles.
Kathy Moore, director of the public health department, said that “how quickly a person can receive a test can be affected by if they are symptomatic or not, or have been identified as a close contact,” but that there are local sites that test without doctors’ orders.
Still, admitted Moore in an email, “We are stretched beyond our limits due to the high number of cases at this time.”
Knop’s granddaughter said she was worried about both her parents and grandparents.
“I haven’t been going out and about, and I made this one exception,” she said. “I hadn’t had dinner with my grandparents and parents in months.”
The county’s numbers paint quite a picture of the weeks following President Trump’s visit to Muskegon. The day of the rally, on Oct. 17, the county saw 16 new COVID-19 cases overnight; a week later, on Oct. 24, there were 63; two weeks later, on Oct. 31, there were 95. By Nov. 4, the county saw its highest-ever number of daily cases: 159.
But that doesn’t necessarily prove causality. Moore said in an email on Friday that, “among the volumes of positive COVID-19 cases identified over the last 2 weeks, only a few—4 so far—indicated that they attended President Trump’s rally in Muskegon.”
Two of those people reported that they were symptomatic before even showing up at the airport, Moore said. She added that the other two reported attending “multiple events—restaurants, parties, movies, family homes, etc.—in addition to the rally over several days prior to their testing or onset of symptoms.”
As for COVID-19 clusters in health-care facilities, cases are commonly found among colleagues and their family members, but while “linkages are easy to identify,” Moore said, “we can’t say that the facility is the source of the infection.”
For Muskegon specifically, the state’s COVID-19 data shows that the county had a 4.85 percent positivity rate on Oct. 14, a few days before the rally. On Nov. 4, it was 18.48 percent. (Both the World Health Organization and Johns Hopkins University have said that a key threshold for a rate being “too high” is 5 percent.)
As of Friday, the county had a cumulative total of 3,081 cases and 86 deaths from the novel coronavirus.
“We’ve had multiple staff out sick every day,” said Dr. Rob Davidson, an emergency physician at a hospital in the region and executive director of the lobbying group Committee to Protect Medicare.
“It’s just a ripple effect,” said Davidson, who works about 20 miles away from Muskegon. “Politics aside, that was a major reason we wanted to discourage the president from showing up. There’s no doubt that a gathering like that, whatever the reason, would lead to increased cases in the area.”
As for the hospital workers Knop’s granddaughter said she believed attended the rally, many of them were likely soon back on the job.
“As long as you did the screening, check your temperature, ‘Do you have a cough?’” she explained. “As long as you answered no to all of that, you were fine to go to work.”
When asked whether employees who may have attended mass gatherings had been told to undergo any specific protocols before returning to the hospital, a spokesperson said in a statement that employees are encouraged to “practice masking and physical distancing at all times both at work and outside of work as well.”
Neither Knop’s granddaughter nor Davidson said they believed with any certainty that more stringent policies would be feasible.
“We only take our masks off to eat and drink, but with morning sickness, I eat pretty much every two hours,” she said. “It’s totally possible I got sick from one of them. I do have a few coworkers who are out right now with COVID-19.”
“It’s hard when I wear a mask all day, and the people who don’t believe in the severity of the virus don’t want to wear one to keep me safe,” she added, noting that after the rally, her hospital saw a steep increase in the number of hospitalizations for COVID-19.
According to the website for the Mercy Health hospital system, there were 58 patients admitted with COVID-19 on Friday in Muskegon, but a spokesperson for the system declined to provide numbers for previous dates.
For Knop, it wasn’t about getting sick personally—or being worried about his pregnant granddaughter, who seemed to be recovering. It was about watching the entire country suffer from the pandemic and feeling helpless to do anything about it.
“This is the worst thing we’ve ever been through,” said Knop. “This virus thing, and the phenomenal lack of leadership.”
And even though his granddaughter knew it wasn’t her fault she contracted the virus, she felt guilty that she appeared to have exposed her loved ones.
“I feel so bad,” she said. “I didn’t know and got so many other people infected.”