WASHINGTON — Wednesday was National Nurses Day, which is why that afternoon President Trump found himself surrounded by men and women who have been on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic.
“True American heroes,” he called them.
But Sophia Thomas, president of the American Association of Nurse Practitioners, was interested in using the moment to highlight a need her members were facing. Personal protective equipment of the kind needed to keep hospital employees safe was “sporadic,” she told the president.
Looking annoyed, Trump was quick to disagree. “Sporadic for you, but not sporadic for a lot of other people,” he said, claiming that he “heard the opposite” about the availability of respirators, gowns and other protective equipment. That equipment is especially critical in hospitals, where doctors, nurses and others face a higher viral load than others. Many nurses and doctors have died from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, in the United States (the exact number is unknown).
The president continued to insist all was well. “I’ve heard we have tremendous supply to almost all places,” he told Thomas. “Tremendous supply.”
Later that same evening, a young Texas doctor named Pritesh Gandhi posted a video that served as a vivid rejoinder to Trump. Standing in a hallway of the Austin, Texas, clinic where he works, Dr. Gandhi can be seen pressing his face into a plastic food container, of the kind that might otherwise be used to store uneaten spaghetti. He then gingerly lifts off the straps of his N95 mask, pulling them around the outside of the container, so that the mask is stretched tightly over its top.
“Instead of touching the N95 you’re touching the Tupperware container,” Gandhi explained to Yahoo News. “The greatest risk to frontline health care workers is actually self-contamination,” he added, and using a plastic container to remove and store the mask ensures that it won’t be contaminated.
Gandhi did not invent the method, but he also did not expect to use it. As the associate chief medical officer at the People’s Community Clinic in East Austin — the poorer, less white part of town, away from its famed music venues and restaurants — he may have expected to equip his doctors and nurses with necessary protective equipment. But logistical mishaps have prevented masks and gowns from getting speedily to many hospitals and clinics.
And so Gandhi and his colleagues have had to cycle through a supply of three masks each. While one is in use, the other two sit stretched across their respective plastic containers. After two to three days, viral particles those masks may have accumulated while in use would have diminished, although some studies do demonstrate detectable levels as long as a week after a mask is used.
Images of nurses wearing garbage bags and resorting to makeshift methods like Gandhi’s have proliferated, as has an attendant outrage. “I’m furious that @realDonaldTrump insulted a nurse practitioner b/c he had to face the truth,” read part of his accompanying Twitter message.
The issue isn’t just medical for Gandhi. The 37-year-old doctor and Texas native is now running to replace Michael McCaul, a pro-Trump conservative, as the U.S. representative for the 10th Congressional District in Texas. He is one of several doctors who had already been running for Congress, seeking to protect the Affordable Care Act, the Obama-era health law that provided health coverage to millions of Americans. (President Trump and congressional Republicans have continued to vow that they will repeal the law, despite having already failed to do so.)
The coronavirus has given medical candidates like Gandhi a new rationale, not to mention a new visibility. In the last several months, doctors and nurses have been praised as “heroes,” celebrated as frontline soldiers in a war. And just like previous veterans, they are now seeking to bring what they have learned to Washington.
“We as a country are recognizing the important role physicians can have in driving the conversation and being a part of policy,” says Robbie Goldstein, an infectious disease specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital who is running for a Boston-area congressional seat. He is seeking to replace Stephen Lynch, one of exceptionally few Democrats still in the House of Representatives to have voted against passage of the Affordable Care Act a decade ago.
Having declared for the Democratic primary last November, Goldstein did not anticipate treating COVID-19 patients or meeting prospective voters via Zoom. Now he is doing both. At the same time, he says the underlying rationale for his candidacy remains what it has always been.
“The message is the same, and the goal is the same,” Goldstein told Yahoo News. “We as a country are recognizing the importance of health care.”
Gandhi offers a similar assessment. “It hasn’t changed what we’re fighting for,” he told Yahoo News of his coronavirus campaign. He is running on a progressive platform that includes addressing climate change and expanding health care coverage. But because the coronavirus has proved especially devastating to people of color, and because its economic effects have hit people of lower income, he believes that more Americans are aware of the very issues he has been seeking to highlight.
The virus, he says, “magnified the preexisting inequities” in American society. Those inequities are now the stuff of nightly news reports and social media posts. “You can’t unsee the trauma and the suffering,” he says.
Not all the doctors running for Congress are necessarily Democrats. In fact, up the road (quite a bit up the road, this being Texas) from Austin, in the state’s northern panhandle, former White House physician Ronny Jackson is running in the Republican primary for the 13th Congressional District (the seat will be vacated by Rep. Mac Thornberry, who is retiring).
Dr. Jackson (a now retired Navy rear admiral who had been picked by Trump to head the Department of Veterans Affairs, only to have the nomination pulled over allegations of improper behavior) has been a regular in conservative media in recent weeks, touting his military and medical expertise. In one radio interview, for example, he discussed the need for the United States to reclaim some of its pharmaceutical supply lines from China.
Should any of these doctors make it to Capitol Hill, they will find plenty of medical practitioners to keep them company. These include Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., who is a dentist; Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., who is a veterinarian; and Rep. Kim Schrier, D-Wash., a pediatrician who entered politics to protect the Affordable Care Act.
And in the Senate, there is Rand Paul, a physician who contracted the coronavirus himself in March. The disease did not seem to affect him, and by April he was doing what he had been trained to do, volunteering at a hospital in Bowling Green, Ky.
Click here for the latest coronavirus news and updates. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please refer to the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.