Allison Gustavson based this article on interviews with an infectious disease physician who, due to safety concerns, spoke on condition of anonymity. For clarity and impact, it has been written in the first person, from the perspective of the physician.
With his recent COVID-19 diagnosis and subsequent admission to Walter Reed Hospital, President Trump not only placed his care in the hands of the very medical and scientific professionals he has hinged his political success on discrediting, he has also unapologetically exposed them to a potentially lethal infection he has gone to no lengths to prevent.
His malignant recklessness has long put the lives of his supporters and colleagues at risk; the list of infections traced to White House events and their aftermath is widely reported and continues to grow. But while the big names get all of the attention and headlines, countless others — including White House staff, Secret Service agents, and healthcare workers like me — are sitting ducks with no more agency than a child strapped into the car with a drunk driver.
I am a physician and expert in infectious diseases. Although it seems to contradict the prevailing ethos of the medical community, I know I am not alone in asking myself, “Must we continue to treat those who, following Trump’s lead, flout basic safety protocols and even call into question the legitimacy of this so-called ‘scamdemic’?” Might there be another way?
Yes, we have taken the Hippocratic Oath, sacred to all physicians. To be clear, however, that oath never states that we must risk our lives on our patients’ behalf, although we often have and will, when necessary, continue to do so. In the early days and weeks of the pandemic, this was devastatingly unavoidable; as we have seen with nearly every other country in the developed world, however, that window of inevitability has long since passed.
While we cannot get back the colleagues we have lost to COVID-19, we can most assuredly protect the ones we’ve got if the pandemic deniers and minimizers — including the President himself and his enablers — instead seek treatment at hospitals that bear his name and adhere to protocols designed to keep him in power.
If you had asked me a year ago, I would have considered these suggestions to be quite literally unfathomable.
My work is shaped by science and evidence-based best practices as put forth by my esteemed colleagues, medical journals, and our institutions of public health. I am a registered Independent and have never considered my profession to be a political one, nor has it occurred to me, in my long career, to ascribe political motivations to the recommendations of our public health agencies, upon which I have always relied for trustworthy information and guidance.
While it is certainly no longer novel to observe that our country is following two distinct and irreconcilable COVID-19 narratives, the ideological boxing match — with expertise in one corner, and political expediency in the other — has left our medical professionals exposed, vulnerable, and at risk.
We have arrived at a philosophical crisis with very concrete, real world, life-or-death implications. With his famous principle of noncontradiction, Aristotle clarified, nearly 2500 years ago, what it means to know something: the principle essentially states that it is impossible for something to be both itself and not itself at the same time. A dog cannot be both a dog and not a dog; it either is or it isn’t.
This all sounds perhaps academic and irrelevant, until we place the question squarely at the center of my specific, individual, very real life as a doctor, a parent, a physician’s spouse, a child of a Trump supporter, and a deeply concerned American citizen whose nuanced and predominantly centrist political views should, in normal times, be wholly irrelevant to discussions of this public health crisis.
In March, the hospital in which I work became overwhelmed with patients suffering from COVID-19. We had colleagues on respirators, husbands and wives dying together in the intensive care unit, and people sharing ventilators. I hardly spoke to my spouse and young children for three weeks, as I was in a state of shock after working twelve-hour days without a break, while simultaneously worrying about my own family’s susceptibility to COVID-19.
From within this physical and emotional hurricane, my colleagues and I have looked to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, for reason, direction, and leadership. At any other time in living memory, public health protocols would have been consistent across agencies, centralized, and unquestionably sourced exclusively in science.
Alarmingly, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and, more broadly, our national response to this global pandemic have repeatedly shown symptoms of White House meddling and politicization. The large and ever-growing laundry list of interference in America’s pandemic response by the Trump Administration for his own political gain extends well beyond the criminal. It’s immoral, inhumane, and deadly.
A recent public statement made jointly by Martha McNutt, President of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, and Victor Dzau, President of National Academy of Medicine declared, “Policymaking must be informed by the best available evidence without it being distorted, concealed, or otherwise deliberately miscommunicated. We find ongoing reports and incidents of the politicization of science, particularly the overriding of evidence and advice from public health officials and derision of government scientists, to be alarming.”
The fact that former Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) spokesman Michael Caputo claimed that there was an internal group of healthcare professionals in the CDC who wanted to prolong the pandemic to increase the likelihood of a Trump loss is a signal to both me and my colleagues that, to the contrary, there exists a group of physicians, scientists and public health experts inside the CDC fighting desperately, and heroically, to protect the American public from a White House waging a war not against COVID-19 but against its effect upon the President’s prospects for re-election.
Trump’s Administration has placed our public health agencies, and the CDC in particular, in the position of trying to be two mutually-exclusive things at once: non-partisan institutions focused on “sav[ing] lives and protect[ing] people from health threats” and extensions of a White House messaging machine focused on minimizing the reputational damage inflicted by this deadly pandemic.
By definition, it cannot be both.
So the question becomes: are partisan hospitals in our future? Wouldn’t Trump — he of steaks, for-profit colleges, vodka, and airlines — jump at the chance to put his name on yet another dubious commercial enterprise? For those heeding the President’s advice and following his lead, Trump Hospital should be available to treat COVID-19 concerns with hydroxychloroquine and intravenous disinfectants. Dr. Scott Atlas, the neuroradiologist elected to Trump’s Coronavirus Task Force with no background in infectious diseases, would oversee patient care, presumably with a team of irrelevant experts from a variety of medical and non-medical fields whose donations were substantial enough to earn hospital wing naming rights. Hospital rooms could be outfitted with gun racks and televisions tuned exclusively to Fox News, although rooms might not even be necessary since “Warp Speed vaccinations” — a name seemingly straight out of Spaceballs — would be readily available.
For those that follow the recommendations of medical experts, however, traditional hospitals would be safer both for patients and staff. Such hospitals would lean neither left nor right but would rather stand proudly upright and adhere to the latest evidence-based medical practices.
I know that I am not alone amongst my fellow medical professionals, though, when I say that I would wholeheartedly support the natural migration of self-selecting patients to Trump Hospital. It has become increasingly clear that while COVID-19 will continue to affect even those who do follow the rules — and disproportionately ravage many communities due to systemic health and social inequalities that have nothing to do with personal choice — individuals who choose to ignore the experts are weaponizing their political beliefs with tragic consequences.
Under Trump’s leadership, many Americans have made a choice, and they’ve chosen COVID-19. But unlike, say, wearing a seat belt, this choice has consequences that extend far beyond the recklessness of a “freedom-loving” individual. When you’re dealing with a highly contagious virus, the ripple effect — on other patients, on medical professionals, on the healthcare system itself — is exponential and devastating.
Trump Hospital at least partially resolves this injustice. When those who choose not to follow public health recommendations seek care at Trump Hospital after contracting COVID-19, our devoted techs, nurses, and doctors can avoid unnecessary exposure and focus their attention on treating not only those who were unable to avoid contracting the virus, but also on the multitude of other health crises — cancer patients, automobile accidents, heart attacks, and chronic illness — that hospitals see every day.
As citizens, we must each decide who we wish to heed on this embattled American ship; we can choose either the trained and experienced captains or the cocksure pirates trying to gag and silence them. Those who are trying to have it both ways should take it up with Aristotle.