In the spring, U.S. medical workers were heralded as heroes. But by the fall, the rhetoric had started to shift, with the public growing increasingly fatigued by the coronavirus pandemic and President Donald Trump accusing doctors of inflating Covid-19 death counts for money.
With the death toll from the coronavirus continuing to tick up, many medical workers say they hoped for a landslide victory for Democratic nominee Joe Biden, who has said he’ll follow the advice of scientists if he’s wins the presidency.
“Trump has insulted our integrity and allowed for more than seven months of chaos and excessive deaths to Covid,” said Dr. John Purakal, an emergency medicine physician based in North Carolina. “It’s so surprising to me,” he said. “But here we are.”
A variety of polls indicate that the majority of Americans don’t approve of the administration’s management of the coronavirus. In July, just 32% of Americans said they approved of Trump’s pandemic strategy, according to The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. In August, 7 out of 10 Americans who responded to a CNN poll said the president’s response was embarrassing. NBC exits polls from Election Day and early voting, found that 51% of voters think U.S. efforts to contain the outbreak are going badly.
Biden may still eke out a victory. But after the Trump administration undermined or contradicted its own medical experts on everything from wearing masks to reopening schools at the beginning of the outbreak, the tight race feels like a slap in the face for many physicians fighting the pandemic .
Texas and Florida — where there have been more than 960,000 and 827,000 confirmed cases, respectively, so far — solidly went for Trump even though Democrats thought the outbreak gave them a fighting chance in some red states.
“Many of us are now questioning whether we’re speaking into an echo chamber,” said Miami-based physician Dr. Krishna Komanduri. Miami-Dade County dealt a big blow to the Biden campaign in Florida and helped seal the state for Trump.
The economy, and not the pandemic, was more of a priority for 70% of Trump voters, according to the NBC poll.
For doctors like Komanduri, the economy and the coronavirus are not separate issues. Successfully containing the virus will lead to fewer restrictions, which inevitably opens up the economy, he said.
“It’s making me do a serious re-analysis of how I can make a difference,” added Komanduri, who’s the chief of transplantation and cellular therapy at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center. “I went to bed Tuesday night feeling a real sense of helplessness and sadness.”
Of course, not all health-care workers lean left and many remain major supporters of the Trump administration. A 2016 study found that 46% of doctors are Republicans. Things appear to have shifted in the past four years, however, with recent analyses indicating that more and more doctors are increasingly aligning themselves with the Democrats.
For those who firmly sided with Democrats this year, the race has been too close for comfort. And that feels like a slight.
As Purakal points out, hundreds of health-care workers have died from Covid-19, and countless others have been infected.
“I really thought that our experiences in the trenches would impact people’s voting decisions,” added Dr. Avital O’Glasser, an associate professor and hospitalist at Oregon Health & Science University.
Trump’s response to the virus reflects a disregard for scientific expertise, including his downplaying of the importance of masks. She thought Biden would win in a landslide, so the tight race is a real wake-up call, she said. Even if Biden ultimately wins, she’s been thinking about what she could do to communicate more effectively to people in the future.
“Our country doesn’t have the science and math education that a lot of other countries have,” she said.
Others say they are feeling exhausted after months fighting the coronavirus, and they were hoping for a clear-cut Biden victory to buoy their spirits.
“I can’t help but feeling as a health-care worker that the nation really let us down … even if Biden does win,” added James Kerridge, a director of nursing practice based in Chicago. “All of the clapping doesn’t make up for the feeling of still being canon fodder for an inept administration.”
Dr. George Alba, a pulmonologist based in the Boston area, said the election leaves him feeling dismayed. He’s had to live separately from his family for weeks at a time to keep them safe, and he’s been working long hours treating Covid-19 patients.
“We felt like we had the nation’s support until the coronavirus became political and the administration started eroding confidence in scientists,” he said. “The sentiment around supporting health-care workers only lasted as long as it was politically convenient.”
Others doctors have been doing a lot of soul-searching about what their patients might be going through, and how they can better relate to them.
Dr. Laolu Fayanju, a family medicine doctor based in Ohio, treats patients in so-called Rust Belt cities like Youngstown.
He’s heard from a lot of his patients that they’ve been having a difficult time during the pandemic and are feeling lonely and isolated. Others are concerned about their job prospects, and felt emboldened by Trump’s promises to bring back manufacturing jobs.
He’s recognizing that many of those patients handed Trump a win in Ohio.
“I drive through this former General Motors auto plant on my way to work,” he said. “It feels like a mausoleum, a symbolic representation of what the region is going through.”