“Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life.”
On Monday night, after a three-day stay at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to treat his COVID-19 infection, President Trump downplayed the seriousness of the virus on Twitter, urging Americans to “not be afraid,” even as the nationwide death toll surpassed 210,000.
For families of many of those who’ve died, the words added insult to injury. Not only did the tweet diminish their family member’s fight, but it also served as a reminder of just how badly the Trump administration botched its response to the pandemic, especially early on.
While Trump received top-of-the-line care ― he was administered oxygen, given an experimental antibody cocktail, put on an antiviral IV drip and given a powerful steroid by a fleet of doctors ― many sick Americans struggled to even get a coronavirus test unless they met certain criteria. Getting a hospital bed was even harder to qualify for, and a shortage of ventilators hastened the deaths of thousands.
Many relatives spoke on Twitter themselves to voice their disbelief over the president’s words. We reached out and asked them if they wanted to say more than just 140 characters ― and if they’d be willing to share a photo of their loved ones.
The photos and their stories serve as a reminder that the more than 210,000 Americans who’ve died aren’t just statistics: They lived rich, vibrant lives. They had families. They were loved. And in their final days, they were afraid of COVID-19 ― as every one of us should be.
Note: Responses have been lightly edited for style and clarity.
'The three weeks he was in the hospital were agonizing.'
"Our dad and our mom’s husband, Paul J. Foley Jr. was an active, healthy 77-year-old who likely caught COVID-19 while doing his civic duty as a judge of elections in Chicago on March 17. This photo was the last one taken of my dad, just days before he got sick. He went into the hospital on March 28 and died on April 17 after three weeks on a ventilator. The three weeks he was in the hospital were agonizing with ups and downs every day. Our only contact was through FaceTime and telephone calls, except at the end when we knew he was dying and our mom and my sister and brother were fortunate enough to be able to see him one last time.
Our dad greeted everyone with a smile, could talk to anyone, and loved to tease, always looking to kid around with you. He was a risk-taker, willing to ride the highest roller coaster or brave the wildest rapids, and just before he died, he went skydiving at iFLY, something he always wanted to do.
Since his death, we have not been able to hold a proper memorial service. We have not been able to grieve together as a family. Why? Because we are afraid of COVID. For our family to travel across the country could put us and others at risk. We do not wish this kind of pain upon anyone. We wear masks. We believe the science. We look out for one another. Our dad taught us more patience, less intolerance; empathy and action over indifference; respect not dishonor; humility over arrogance; selflessness not selfishness; and honesty instead of deceit. Sadly, the current administration brazenly does not hold these same values." -- Christine from Illinois, who wrote this along with her siblings Kerry, Paul and Jill, and their mother, Judy
'I spent hours on the phone with doctors and nurses every day for three weeks.'
"I spent eight weeks from March to May taking care of my 90-year-old grandmother on the Upper East Side as she and I both recovered from COVID. This was all while my mother was on a ventilator for 18 days in Boston and my 95-year-old grandfather was in the hospital, dying from COVID during the height of the pandemic. I spent hours on the phone with doctors and nurses every day for three weeks. I had to find a funeral home that would take my grandfather's body during the height of the pandemic, and I personally conducted the funeral. Oh, yeah: I also had to figure out at what point during the post-ventilator haze would be most appropriate time to explain to my mother that her dad had died while she was teetering on the edge of death herself. But really, I don't see any reason to think that anyone should be afraid of this virus. After all, it's probably just a 'bad flu.'" -- Gabe Dreyer from Brooklyn, New York
'I lost my job, health insurance, friends and family to COVID.'
"I've never had one man devastate my life like this. I lost my job, health insurance, friends and family to COVID. My grandmother's body could not even be properly stored after she passed because of COVID restrictions, she sat for four days under an air conditioner until she was buried closed casket. Seeing [the president] brag about drugs he didn't develop and science and knowledge he ignored feels like he's taunting me." -- Tom from Pennsylvania
'Had Trump been honest ... my dad might be alive today.'
"My dad traveled the world. He fought tirelessly for his immigration clients. He was generous with his family. For his 80th birthday, he planned a family trip to Israel. He loved Chinese food, ice cream sundaes and Caribbean trips. When COVID-19 hit our area hard, he canceled our trip, closed his law practice and stayed home. A week too late. It started with a cold and, upon reflection, some nostalgia: He asked me to bake my late mom’s chocolate chip cookies. Then fever. And tremors. I took him to the ER the evening before his 80th birthday. He died eight days later. Alone. (The photo to the right was taken two hours before he died.)
Live our lives? Don’t be afraid? It’s no worse than the flu? Trump has access to the best, albeit socialized, medical attention. He was immediately treated with the best available medicinal cocktail. Just like my dad. Oh, wait. That’s not true. The orthopedic surgeon who saw my dad the morning he died hadn’t practiced infectious disease since his internship. Had Trump been honest and enacted a real pandemic response plan, my dad might be alive today." -- Carol Ackerman from New City, New York
'Yes, he was in assisted living when he got COVID, but no, he was not expendable.'
"My father, recently widowed, died in May. Denied Remdesivir, he died alone in a hospital. Heartbreak. My seven siblings and I, and several grandkids said goodbye by phone. Dad served in the U.S. Army Medical Corps in Japan after WWII. He was a dentist in a working-class neighborhood, at times taking produce in pay. Yes, he was in assisted living when he got COVID, but no, he was not expendable. Why was the U.S. still not able to test and provide PPE so many months into the pandemic? Because our president failed to listen to brilliant scientists like Dr. Fauci. Our family is full of frontline essential workers; we sew masks and constantly worry because of his failure. When we saw the president tweet that COVID is nothing after getting treatment the rest of us couldn't dream of, it cemented our belief that he has no compassion for the good people of the U.S. My father was a single-issue voter, so he did vote for Trump in 2016, but he was starting to ask the right questions. He would not have voted for him again, and you should not either." -- Joanne from Ohio
'My family knows exactly why we should be afraid.'
Janet Kennedy McLiverty
"I was beyond enraged when I saw the president tweet, 'Don’t be afraid of COVID.' My family, along with the 210,000+ others who helplessly watched their loved ones die from complications due to COVID-19, know exactly why we should be afraid. My father died on May 5, 2020. He died after being admitted to the hospital on April 20th alone and afraid. He died after only getting to see his children and grandchild over FaceTime because the nurses were so compassionate. He died after most doctors only saw him via Telemed because there wasn’t enough PPE. He died without the option of receiving Remdesivir or plasma because there wasn’t any available. He died after being sedated on a ventilator for 10 days while his body was ravaged from the virus. He died with a swollen brain and body, lungs full of holes, heart enlarged, organs rendered useless. He died with a hero nurse who held his hand, the only thing I could think of asking her to do because we couldn’t be there. We couldn't have a wake or funeral. Couldn't be with our family and friends and mourn together. This is why I am afraid of COVID-19." -- Janet Kennedy McLiverty from New Jersey
'I was swearing at the TV as he stood there trying to act as if it were no big deal
"Trump left the hospital where he received the best, most extensive treatment to save his life. These are things my mom, who died of COVID at 87 over the summer, never got. And then he immediately removes his mask! It was horrifying, and I was swearing at the TV as he stood there trying to act as if it were no big deal. And then he said as much, that it was nothing to fear and people should live their lives.
My mom, Providenza "Betty" Merlino, was a beautiful, kind and generous soul. She loved everyone she met. She liked to laugh and enjoyed watching her shows on TV, shopping and an occasional hot fudge sundae with chocolate ice cream. She loved her four boys, 19 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. And now, I am left with an empty seat at the table, her empty room with an empty bed, my empty arm to guide her as she held on to walk.
Thanks to the neglect and mishandling of this crisis, the politicizing of masks and the downplaying of this deadly disease, my mom no longer lives her life. I barely live mine now in a dark sadness as I try to continue without her." -- Joseph Merlino from North Las Vegas, Nevada
'To play down something so serious is to mock [the victims].'
"I survived the virus in February. My dearest friend, Kenny, passed from COVID at age 42 on May 29. My great-aunt, Jeane, 88, passed away from COVID on Sept. 27. To 'play down' something so serious is to mock those of us who have been negatively impacted by the virus. His actions told me that he does not care for anyone other than himself and that playing down my friend’s and great-aunt’s lives was necessary for his reelection efforts — collateral damage. That is unacceptable to me. He doesn’t understand that life is far more valuable than winning an election and dead people can’t invest in the markets." -- Lance from Tennessee
'I took the photo here on the day he was intubated.'
Betty Miller Wellston
"I'm sickened by the president's constant dismissal of the reality of COVID and the consequences of portraying COVID as harmless. When I last spoke with my brother on that Sunday prior to him being intubated, he pleaded with me to let people know 'COVID isn’t a joke. It’s not a hoax.' He implored me in broken, struggling breaths to 'do something about it and make them see it’s real, and it hurts so bad.' I took the photo here on the day he was intubated. Heavily draped in PPE, I’m sure the hospital knew the severity of his condition and the bleak outlook. A five-minute visit, but it was enough to resonate with me a lifetime. We must see the reality of COVID. Jesse was an average guy, a military veteran, a husband, father, brother, son, uncle, and friend. He wasn’t just some abstract statistic. He was somebody, not just 'virtually a nobody.' COVID is real. COVID kills, and dead is forever." -- Betty Miller from Wellston, Ohio
'[Would] things be different for my mom if she had that type of service?'
"When I read Trump's tweet, it was like a slap in the face. It was difficult to process how unaffected he was by the virus. The majority of Americans do not have access to the same treatment and medicine that he has. The majority of Americans don’t even have access to proper health care. COVID personally hit my family very hard: It was contracted by my dad, brother, sister-in-law, uncle and, sadly, my mother, who passed away because of the virus. My mother was transferred from one hospital to another for better care, and that better care wasn’t enough to save her life. The doctors said her case was one of the worst they had seen. When I read Trump's quote, it took me back. It made me question if things would have been different for my mom if she had that type of service." -- Nicolas Marin from Whittier, California
'He doesn’t think about how this impacts the families as well as victims of the virus.'
"Saying 'don’t be afraid' proves that [the president] is so far removed from reality that he doesn’t think about how this impacts the families as well as victims of the virus. My grandma was 91 years old and a breast cancer survivor. After all she had fought, she died of COVID-19 on Sept 18, 2020, while I was holding her hand for the first time since February. She couldn’t breathe. Now her whole family is hurting." -- Jackie R. from Minnesota
'The tweet is extremely dangerous and insensitive.'
"My uncle passed away last Thursday after being exposed to COVID. He was in the ICU for a few days before he passed and had preexisting conditions. I think his tweet is extremely dangerous and insensitive. So many people have lost friends and loved ones. He has continuously spread misinformation and caused so many deaths. He is responsible for more than 210,000 lives and still refuses to take this pandemic seriously. He’s an embarrassment to the world, and I hope one day he finally gets the prison sentence he deserves." -- Brooke from New York
'My life HAS been dominated by this horrific virus, I have no choice.'
"While I wish the president well, his callous tweets the day he left Walter Reed are a slap in the face. His bravado serves only to promote his ego rather than offering sympathy to the families of the 210,000 families of those lost to COVID-19. These are real people, not just numbers. They are loved and they are greatly missed. My father died from COVID-19 on Aug. 7. My life HAS been dominated by this horrific virus, I have no choice. My father fought hard for four weeks alone in the hospital. The next time I was able to see him was to take him off life support. The loss of my father is directly linked to the president’s failure to respect scientists and doctors and enforce a cohesive, data-driven response to this pandemic. His dangerous rhetoric regarding the virus, with tweets like 'Don’t be afraid of COVID' put his own people’s health and lives at risk." -- Tara Krebbs from Arizona
'How can that grief not dominate you?'
"I carry the weight of wondering what my Aunt Grace's last hours were like dying alone every day. How can that grief not dominate you? What right does anyone have to tell you your loss isn’t important? The callous words of our president minimizing the death and grief many of us have endured every day is indefensible. Donald Trump is a merciless man. People’s lives aren’t a bartering chip for his personal gain.
My aunt's name was Grace. She and her three sisters, my great aunties, raised me. They taught me to love unconditionally. Caring for her this past year was my purpose. She was in a nursing home in Ohio that was not testing or reporting data. Before she passed away on May 13, I saw her through a window that didn’t open. Her eyes were red and she was short of breath. The Trump administration's abysmal failure and mishandling of this pandemic will be my greatest fear until they are out of power. In order to lead greatly, you first have to practice kindness for all of the American's lives you are there to protect. For Grace, I fight the injustice of Trump jeopardizing the lives of millions of Americans daily. By grace we will change that on Nov. 3." -- Adrienne D’Angelo from New York City
'He could have shown true leadership by offering words of comfort, determination and strength.'
"My mother, Anna A Gaffney, died on April 17, 2020. Cause of death: Complications due to novel coronavirus. Sitting in my apartment in NYC, seeing POTUS say, 'Don’t be afraid of the virus. Don’t let it dominate your life' was such a sucker punch to the gut for me. I immediately felt outrage and then utter disappointment. I was so hoping for the sake of our country that his firsthand experience would help bring some healing to a country so battered and weary from this virus, but I guess he just didn’t get sick enough for true understanding. That’s what that kind of medical care affords you. POTUS had an opportunity to show true leadership by offering words of comfort, determination and strength. Instead he chose words of dismissal and frankly sheer cowardice. The same way he has back-peddled on some of his tweets in the past, he still has a chance to regroup on his initial statement. I won’t hold my breath." -- Anna Gaffney from Astoria, New York
'My immediate thought was, how dare he.'
Giana Castro Rivera
"My father died in April, almost exactly six months away from my 16th birthday. I remember waking up to that horrid phone call. It just makes your stomach drop. The worst part was that I never got to say goodbye. Initially, when I saw the president's tweet, my immediate thought was, how dare he. I was filled with so much rage, his tweet was basically dismissing the thousands of families who are hurting, mine included. Just because he had a somewhat easy time dealing with COVID-19 doesn’t mean everyone else does. My father had to die alone with no one by his side on a machine that had to breathe for him, so, in my opinion, yes, COVID-19 is a big deal. I will never get to have my father at my high school graduation, my wedding or any milestones in between. So shame on you, Mr. President, I hope you are deeply ashamed.” -- Giana Castro Rivera from Howell, New Jersey
'I know that his words will mean many more people dying of COVID-19.'
"When Trump said that, it was personal. I want to scream at him and every Republican who has allowed him to lie to the American people. I feel he is responsible for a bulk of the deaths. He lied to people, and that's why my stepdad is dead. People in Florida did this to him. Ron DeSantis led the charge, convincing people in Florida not to wear masks or social distance in an effort to get Trump to love him. My stepdad did not need to die. So many people did not need to die. I am a nurse. I have spent my lifetime protecting public health. Every single person who dies affects me. They are people who are loved. They are human beings. People forget that. When Trump tweeted what he did, every cell in my body screamed. I know that his words will mean many more people dying of COVID-19." -- Trish, who lives in the Northeast