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To many supporters, Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis inspires hope, not fear

To President Donald Trump’s critics, the brief video he released Monday evening following a hospitalization for COVID-19 captured his callous approach to a public health crisis that has claimed the lives of more than 210,000 people in the United States. To his supporters, it was an iconic rallying cry.

In the video message, recorded upon his return to the White House from Walter Reed National Medical Military Center, where Trump spent three days receiving treatment after testing positive for COVID-19 last week, the president urged Americans not to fear the coronavirus pandemic or let it “take over your lives.”

Condemnation from the left was swift. But the president’s followers said it was exactly the type of blunt, upbeat message they wanted to hear at a moment when Trump is trailing his Democratic challenger in the polls and struggling to gain ground in the final weeks of the presidential election.

“It kind of goes back to President Roosevelt when he said there’s nothing to fear but fear itself,” said Cheryl Pelletier, a Republican from Arizona, referring to the famous line from Franklin Roosevelt’s first inaugural address. “Trump was saying, ‘Hey, I got it and I’m OK.’ It was an iconic moment.”

The president’s effort to project physical toughness while recovering from the virus has struck a chord with supporters, many of whom said in interviews in recent days that his experience with COVID-19 made them less fearful of contracting it — and didn’t change their belief that he should get a second term..

“I’m probably more likely to get hit by lightning than die by COVID,” said Tom Antor, a Republican county commissioner in Western Michigan. Trump’s speedy recovery “underscores the fact that, like he said, you can’t let this virus rule your life,” he added.

More than 7.5 million Americans have contracted COVID-19 this year, according to Johns Hopkins University’s coronavirus resource center, though experts believe the true number of cases is much higher. The fatality rate for COVID-19 in the U.S. is 2.8 percent,, but doctors believe the illness can cause serious lingering health effects for many who get it, and much about the long-term impacts remains unknown.

White House physician Sean Conley cautioned Monday upon Trump’s release from the hospital that he “may not be entirely out of the woods yet,” and would be monitored closely for the remainder of the seven to 10-day period after the onset of symptoms during which time COVID-19 patients are most at risk of becoming seriously ill or dying.

U.S. Navy Commander Dr. Sean Conley, the White House physician, flanked by other doctors, talks to reporters about President Donald Trump’s health after the president was hospitalized for coronavirus disease (COVID-19) treatment, at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, on October 3, 2020. REUTERS/Ken Cedeno

While Trump’s positive test was announced early Friday, Oct. 2, it’s unclear when he began showing symptoms, and the White House has not been wholly transparent about his illness, refusing to release details on his lung scans and other aspects of his treatment that would paint a fuller picture of the president’s health.

Since testing positive, the president — who is 74 and clinically obese, both of which put him at higher risk of complications from the virus — has received a combination of drugs, including Regeneron, Remdisivir and Dexamethasone, a steroid typically given to patients with severe COVID-19 infections.

Trump touted Regeneron in a new video message Wednesday, saying he planned to make the drug available for free to all Americans so they could receive the same level of care that he has, though the drug hasn’t yet concluded the trial phase and currently isn’t widely available. Trump said that being diagnosed with COVID-19 was a “blessing in disguise,” sparking criticism from those who have lost friends or family to the virus, and reiterated his claims that he was feeling “great” after leaving the hospital. “I feel better than I did 20 years ago,” he tweeted.

Scientists have learned more about the virus in recent months — for instance, that it is most likely spread through the air than through contact with surfaces — but how it affects the body is wildly unpredictable, and can vary widely person to person.

A number of the president’s supporters said they believed he had fully recovered and they were not worried that he might take a turn for the worse. “I’m in his age group and I couldn’t do what he does. He must have extraordinary genes,” said Jeff Piccola, 72, a former Republican state lawmaker in Pennsylvania.

Others said Trump’s recovery gave them confidence that if they tested positive they would be able to beat the illness.

“I think he gives a lot of hope and courage to people who are afraid and don’t know how to live their lives during this difficult time,” said Lorraine Pellegrino, a Trump supporter who lives in the Phoenix area.

More than two dozen White House aides, Republican lawmakers and others have tested positive for the coronavirus after a ceremony at the White House in late September announcing the president’s Supreme Court nominee, Judge Amy Coney Barrett, where few people wore masks or practiced social distancing.

Several voters who plan to back Trump in November said they weren’t following the steady stream of news reports about how members of the president’s inner circle were infected with the coronavirus, and whether the infections were a real public health threat.

“As far as me knowing who he caught it from and who he may have been in contact with, I’m not the least interested in it. It doesn’t really affect me,” said Steve Tidwell, a pastor and small business owner who lives in northwestern Alabama and is planning to vote for Trump. He added, “I’m not going to lose sleep worrying about [Trump’s health] because there’s nothing I can do about it. He’s going to get the best treatment, and we’ll go from there.”

President Donald Trump holds an event to announce his Supreme Court nominee, Judge Amy Coney Barrett, at the White House on September 26, 2020. Photo by REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Trump’s insistence that he has quickly and fully recovered from his illness fits neatly within his narrative around the pandemic, which he has insisted since March his administration is bringing under control, despite a steadily rising death toll and millions of Americans out of work.

But the argument that life is returning to normal has been harder to make during an election that has been upended by the pandemic.

Vice President Mike Pence and California Sen. Kamala Harris, the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, sat 12 feet apart and were separated by plexiglass barriers at their debate Wednesday, offering viewers a stark reminder that the pandemic has not gone away.

The status of the final two presidential debates also remains up in the air due to Trump’s illness, with both campaigns wrangling over the dates and how they should be conducted.

As they watched the events of the past week unfold, Trump loyalists applauded his resistance to taking it easy because of a health scare.

Pellegrino, who has long been active in Republican politics in Arizona, said Trump’s approach to his illness demonstrated strong leadership in the face of adversity. She said it stood in marked contrast to Biden’s decision to wear masks in public and his refusal to hold large campaign events during the pandemic.

“Don’t you want a tough fighter in the White House?” Pellegrino said of Trump. “He’s just a gladiator in my book.” Biden, she said, “is staying too hunkered down” and is “too weak” to serve as commander-in-chief.

Bill Miller, a Republican who runs a powerful lobbying firm in Austin, Texas, said the president’s personal brush with the coronavirus was bad timing for a candidate trailing in the polls so close to Election Day. But Miller argued that if Trump’s health holds up, the episode will be in the rearview mirror for most voters come Nov. 3.

The election is “already cooked and it’s just a matter of turnout. I don’t think this matters,” Miller said. He added that it was no surprise Trump’s behavior over the past week divided the country, appealing to supporters and turning off critics.

With Trump, “it doesn’t matter how you chop the piece of beef. Nobody’s going to be completely happy with it,” he said.

Still, looking back on the past several days, at least some Trump voters said they wished he had handled things differently. Linda Ackerman, a former Republican National Committeewoman from California who is voting for Trump, said she thought the president could have shown more empathy this week for the Americans who have died during the pandemic.

“I don’t think he handled his exit [from the hospital] very well. I think he could have turned that into a better moment,” Ackerman said. “But that’s the way he is.”