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'He makes it into a joke': For Philly COVID-19 patients, Trump's cavalier attitude stings

By Aubrey Whelan, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in News & Features

PHILADELPHIA - When President Donald Trump talks about his bout with coronavirus - and urges Americans to not let the pandemic that has killed more than 210,000 "dominate their lives" - Jesus Ortiz can hardly bring himself to listen.

Ortiz, 58, was diagnosed in May with COVID-19, and his experience couldn't have been more different from the president's.

Back then, at the height of the pandemic's first wave in the Philadelphia region, testing backlogs meant Ortiz, an apartment building maintenance supervisor from Warminster, had to wait a week for his test results. As he waited, he grew sicker, struggling to breathe. It took two trips to an emergency room before he was admitted to a COVID-19 ward, he said.

Alone in the hospital, with no visitors allowed, Ortiz remembers asking a doctor if he could be treated with blood plasma from other COVID-19 patients, a therapy he had read about. He was told that it was in such short supply that it had to be conserved for the sickest patients, and bad as he felt, that didn't yet include Ortiz.

Eventually, Ortiz did get both plasma and remdesivir - the antiviral medication that the president received right away during his stay at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center earlier this month. After more than a week in the hospital, Ortiz went home, 30 pounds lighter and still relying on supplemental oxygen.

Seeing the president speak about how easy his care and recovery were has stung Ortiz, who felt entirely alone as he grew sicker and demanded scarce treatments.


When the president tells Americans not to worry about the virus, "he makes it into a joke, as far as I'm concerned," Ortiz said. "This is a life-threatening thing, for sure."

Ortiz isn't alone in his anger: Doctors, patients, and their advocates from around the region say Trump's cavalier attitude toward the virus is clearly a dangerous message to precaution-weary Americans. But what's more, his experience speaks to the vast social, racial, and economic inequities in American health care.

"Most catastrophes - natural disasters and pandemics - often open everyone's eyes to the inequities that are there, that are easy to overlook," said Claiborne Childs, a hospitalist at Penn Presbyterian Medical Center. "These disparities have been here for as long as we've been alive."

Two of the drugs that Trump was prescribed at Walter Reed - remdesivir and the steroid dexamethasone - are, generally speaking, available by prescription.


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