On Saturday, Nov. 28, just before the sun rose at Renown South Meadows Medical Center in Reno, Nev., my mother died of COVID-19. The Johns Hopkins toll that day was 265,720 reported COVID deaths in the United States. Hours after receiving the news in a morning phone call, I stared at the stats and wondered how long it would take for the heinous tally to reflect one more person: my mom.
In the days since, I’ve looked back on the emails we exchanged over the course of the pandemic. In March, as I was three weeks into lockdown with only 16 travel-related cases reported to that point in my suburban D.C. area, I sent my mom a message outlining critical precautions that began with an instruction: Get your updates and information only from sources like the state and county health departments, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the National Institutes of Health – not, as I named names, politicians and pundits to whom she listened. I didn’t know then how badly the disinformation created or disseminated by those determined to downplay the virus would actually spin out of control.
Having asthma and understanding how known and treatable pathogens have previously impacted my breathing, I decided in February that I would need to stay home for a significant period of time due to the novel coronavirus and depend on delivery for all of my needs. I’m fortunate that I teleworked before the pandemic hit, and that conferences transitioned to online formats to ensure valuable information sharing didn’t miss a beat. The country’s security apparatus did an incredible job of shifting the means by which it continues to get the job done in response to an unprecedented and insidious enemy. Essential workers who have not had the choice to work from home have too often paid an awful price; for example, as of this writing, 15 Customs and Border Protection personnel and 10 Transportation Security Administration personnel have died after contracting COVID-19, representing the hardest-hit components at the Department of Homeland Security.
I attended the Biodefense World Summit the summer before the pandemic hit, digesting expert analysis about how unprepared the country was to confront the spread of something contagious and potentially deadly, with a flu strain the example most often used in the lectures. I remember listening to the sobering predictions in one pandemic presentation and jumping when someone in the room coughed. Fewer than six months later, the novel coronavirus pandemic began. And while the researchers gathered in Bethesda for that conference discussed issues such as identification and rapid response, virus trafficking, preparation gaps, and the potential for new pathogenic viruses in the near future, the months since COVID began have exposed a formidable foe in advancing public health objectives and saving lives in a crisis: misinformation spread inadvertently, and disinformation disseminated deliberately.
A terrorism analyst doesn’t profess to be an epidemiologist, but pandemic control in the D.C. metro area may have benefited in part from a community significantly composed of government workers, contractors, analysts, and academics who understand the principles of emergency management and the importance of trying to contain a potentially lethal pathogen. The homeland security community is anchored by individuals – from civil servants to contractors, from frontline operators to research and development – who operate from reason, logic, evidence, and science on a mission to prevent, detect, and respond to myriad manmade and natural threats. Conspiracy theory detectors are finely tuned, and recommended courses of action are backed up by real-world experience and research into the unknown. And when we’re not subject-matter experts ourselves we defer to those who are – in this case, looking toward Bethesda and the National Institutes of Health. It’s incomprehensible that the work of scientists laboring in non-political jobs with a novel virus that does not discriminate by ideology has been falsely branded by some as a conspiracy with ill political intentions.
So the question has now haunted me for days: How was I, as a homeland security professional wielding open-source research-based facts and resources that should have overridden the cross-country distance, unable to protect my own mother?
The reports from my mom included some of the excursions she was making beyond a short lockdown – declaring she wanted to resume normal life in the city where my parents had eagerly retired – and excluded news of some excursions or downplayed the extent of exposure. On her 69th birthday Nov. 14, she went out shopping and eating. Three days later, she was admitted to the hospital with nausea and vomiting. She was released before her COVID test came back positive, and spent several days at home reporting “roller coaster” fevers, cough, and weakness. “If I can make it through Friday, I am out of the woods,” she messaged me Nov. 25, paraphrasing what her doctor reportedly told her over the phone. Hours later, she was rushed back to the hospital with shortness of breath and falling oxygen saturation.
As the families of the more than 1.5 million people worldwide who died of COVID so far can attest, you get to say goodbye maybe by phone or not at all; for me, it was the latter. The final message I received from my mom was on Thanksgiving evening, and she did not reply to my replies. The next day, I had a florist deliver a stuffed bear to the COVID ward in hopes that something to cuddle would be soothing, as the nurse told me my mother wasn’t tolerating well the proning that would have helped raise her oxygen levels. The next morning, I got the call that my mother had died. Like other COVID families unable to gather for final farewells, my father will be the only mourner in person at her funeral Mass. I asked him to put the stuffed bear in her niche at the cemetery.
My mother has died from COVID-19, and my stay-at-home continuation is more urgent than ever. I’ve known the risks ever since going delivery-only in February, and now the consequences have come home. My mom often commented that she was getting bored at home, hence trips here and there that were not worth her life. How does one make it through the remainder of this pandemic without the touch of loved ones? Constant reminders that this is a temporary situation with a light at the end of the tunnel. Knowing that you’re helping break the chain of transmission that COVID needs to blaze its deadly trail. Realizing that a bit of sacrifice now means being around to touch loved ones later.
And fighting COVID – especially as a vaccine is rolled out and the conspiracy theory machine cranks up – means battling the disinformation that still inspires people to walk around maskless, to scream about mask regulations at city council meetings, and to declare that common-sense public health measures are some sort of threat to America. No one at the National Institutes of Health is plotting how to strip Americans of their freedoms. No one at FEMA is trying to twist pandemic control into trashing the Constitution. No governor’s office is aiming to oppress their constituency as they try to keep hospitals from overflowing and keep residents alive.
The pundits and politicians my mother admired, individuals with soapboxes of varying heights, have spread lies that COVID is just like the flu, or downplayed the pandemic and necessary restrictions to control the virus as a campaign-season ploy, or castigated public health professionals who are just trying to save families from going through what my family is going through. Three days after my mom died, the president retweeted and agreed with a tweet falsely claiming that the hospital system in which my mother passed away had set up a “fake” overflow COVID ward in a parking garage – in reality, dozens of patients are being treated in the garage as Reno cases have surged.
The day before my mom passed away, as she was trying to sustain her oxygen levels at a point needed for vital organ function, many on Twitter were inexplicably dragging Pope Francis for criticizing those “incapable of moving outside of their own little world of interests” and assuming personal responsibility as this pandemic rages across the globe. I read his New York Times essay that day, and pulled these quotes to add to the Twitter free-for-all: “If we are to come out of this crisis less selfish than when we went in, we have to let ourselves be touched by others’ pain… Where humankind has to act is precisely there, in the threat itself; that’s where the door opens.”
One of my mother’s books that I remember the most was a paperback copy of Thomas Merton’s “No Man Is an Island,” in which he wrote that “free will is not given to us merely as a firework to be shot off into the air.” I can’t help but think of COVID mis-/disinformation as a booming, distracting firework that steals the attention of so many who should be looking at the threat straight ahead of them and taking the simple precautions to not only protect themselves but every precious stranger who may get infected by an obstinate person’s declaration that they’re somehow living freely by refusing to believe the severity of this pandemic.
Today, after I’ve sat up nights and tried to put to paper my mother’s death and the infuriating climate around her passing and the deaths of so many others, the COVID-19 death toll in the United States has climbed to 275,729. It will be unbearably higher by the time I close my laptop and go to bed, and try to sleep.