Lost in the pandemic pettiness and partisanship is the human toll of the virus

November 19, 2020 12:01 am

A woman is tested for COVID-19 in a parking lot in Richmond where the health department set up a temporary walk-up testing center. Fewer Virginians are being tested for COVID-19 through local health departments, making it difficult to track statewide case rates. (2020 photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Nearly a quarter-million Americans have died from COVID-19, including more than 3,800 here in Virginia. Yet they are more than simply numbers to tote up. 

Each had dreams and goals, many had careers, and some had children – or, sadly, were just children themselves. Many toiled at 9-to-5 jobs and lived quietly. Others garnered a hint of celebrity. 

They were folks like Brian Miller, a blind man who became an advocate for the disabled. The 52-year-old worked at the U.S. Department of Education’s Rehabilitation Services Administration and lived in Alexandria. He spoke several languages and had traveled to more than 65 countries. 

“I am sure there were times when he was frustrated,” his mother told The Washington Post, “but there was nothing that would stop him from doing anything he wanted to. He just did it.” He had been otherwise healthy, she said, before Miller became ill and died in April.

Wilson Jerman worked at the White House for decades, starting as a cleaner in 1957. He later became a butler and elevator operator there. In total, he served 11 presidents, and Jerman’s granddaughter said he had “a very close relationship” with Jacqueline Kennedy. He retired for good in 2012 during President Barack Obama’s first term. 

Jerman, 91, died in a Woodbridge hospital in May. 

I’m mentioning them because they get lost in the partisanship, politicization and pettiness of the ongoing crisis. These folks mattered. Except for the pandemic, many would be alive today.

Gov. Ralph Northam announced new restrictions taking effect this week to curb the virus after a recent surge in cases. I’m sure we’ll hear some of the previous complaints regarding closings of businesses; limits on the size of gatherings; and requirements to wear masks. The guv has been inconsistent sometimes in his pronouncements, adopting the latest policies just days after saying he wouldn’t

But understand why he’s taking these steps now: Northam is trying desperately to curb the number of deaths and infections, as possible vaccines loom on the horizon. His measures are perhaps imperfect, and the commonwealth’s economy will suffer in the short term.

He’s working, though, to keep Virginians alive.

It’s not always easy finding out the names of people who die from COVID-19. The state Department of Health, citing the Code of Virginia, told me Tuesday it doesn’t divulge the identities of patients. That’s counterproductive, especially when people die of contagious infections. If obituaries don’t cite the cause of death, we don’t know if there’s a link to the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19.

Such a lack of information means some Virginians will continue to delude themselves into thinking the virus doesn’t exist. If it hasn’t affected their family or close circle, they won’t see the point of wearing masks, or social distancing, or agreeing their children should go to school at home.

President Donald Trump, of course, didn’t help matters by denying or downplaying COVID-19’s impact.

Discounting the seriousness of the pandemic has exacted an awful toll across the country. A South Dakota nurse took to social media a few days ago and noted dying patients are denying they have COVID-19. 

“Their last dying words are, ‘This can’t be happening. It’s not real,’ ” Jodi Doering said. She added that some patients prefer to believe they have pneumonia or other diseases – despite seeing their positive test results, according to The Washington Post. 

Media outlets including The New York Times, Time magazine and “NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt” have put faces and family ties behind the statistics of this scourge. The truth – and horror – are available to anyone who wants to see it.

Many compilations show photos of the people who died this year. True, many were middle-aged or elderly and had underlying medical conditions including obesity, heart disease or breathing-related ailments. 

Yet some were children or young adults. Relatives say those victims might not have had a history of illnesses. They’re stunned their loved ones contracted the virus. 

The photos also show how COVID-19 has disproportionately affected Black, Latino and Native Americans in the number of positive cases, hospitalizations and deaths. It’s one reason, I believe, the president diminished the seriousness of the pandemic for so long. 

Some people took risks they shouldn’t have. Members of a Glen Allen family said relatives contracted the virus in September after traveling to Alabama to attend a funeral. Family members now believe they were exposed to the virus at a gathering inside of a home afterward. They warned about the hazards of people coming together as Americans prepare for the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.

Ed Mendenhall, 63, and his 66-year-old wife, Jane, died weeks apart in October. Ed taught music at Virginia Commonwealth University, the University of Richmond, and the University of Virginia, reported. Jane served for more than 30 years with the Refugee and Immigration Services Department of Commonwealth Catholic Charities.

David Edwards Jr. was born in 1971 in Richmond. He later played college basketball at Georgetown and Texas A&M. “I’m cocky. I don’t back down,” the short guard told The New York Times in 1993. After college, he played basketball professionally overseas. Edwards later was a recreation manager for a community service organization in Queens. 

He was 48 when he died this year. His family told The Times that Edwards had been in good health, and they didn’t know how he contracted the virus. 

The stories and photos of children and teens are perhaps the toughest to take. Ernesto Guzman was only 12 years old and had battled a genetic condition that damaged the nerves in his arms and legs. The sixth-grader loved Fortnite. He was the youngest person in Cook County, Illinois, to die from coronavirus when he passed in May.  

Maybe these stories will make the pandemic more real, more legitimate to non-believers. Restrictions aren’t tyranny. They can prevent us and the people we love from joining a grim, heart-wrenching list.

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Roger Chesley
Roger Chesley

Longtime columnist and editorial writer Roger Chesley worked at the (Newport News) Daily Press and The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot from 1997 through 2018. He previously worked at newspapers in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Detroit. Reach him at [email protected]