A desperate, outraged Twitter thread from a South Dakota emergency room nurse went viral last weekend, landing its author a live interview on CNN. “When I read some of your tweets, my jaw dropped,” the host told Jodi Doering, referring to her account of gravely ill patients who “scream at you for a magic medicine and that Joe Biden is going to ruin the USA. All while gasping for breath.”
“The reason I tweeted what I did is that it wasn’t one particular patient,” the nurse said. “It’s just a culmination of so many people, and their last, dying words are, ‘This can’t be happening, it’s not real.’ And when they should be spending time FaceTime-ing their families, they’re filled with anger and hatred, and it just made me really sad.”
These were astonishing statements, and, not surprisingly, they captured the attention of millions. Multiple US senators and Pulitzer-prize-winning journalists were among the throngs who tweeted out the CNN interview, which was also written up by The Washington Post and other mainstream outlets. “This is the cost of disinformation,” wrote Atul Gawande, a New Yorker contributor and member of Joe Biden’s coronavirus task force. Senator Elizabeth Warren called it “heartbreaking.”
There’s no doubt that we owe a deep debt of gratitude to Jodi Doering and all the frontline medical personnel dealing with the current surge in Covid cases. The work they do is truly heroic. Still, the manner in which Doering’s account of her experience has been reported and circulated should give people pause.
Doering’s statement that she’s watched “so many” people die from the disease even as they deny its very existence, endlessly repeated on social media and presented by news outlets without corroboration, would seem to represent a broader phenomenon.
But other nurses who work in similar settings say they’ve seen nothing of the kind.
I called a number of hospitals in the same part of South Dakota to ask emergency room nurses if they’d noticed the same, disturbing phenomenon. At Avera Weskota Memorial Hospital, about 20 minutes from Doering’s hometown of Woonsocket, an ER nurse told me, “I have not had that experience here.” At my request, Kim Rieger, the VP for communications and marketing at Huron Regional Medical Center, one of the four medical facilities where Doering works, spoke with several nurses at Huron to get their reactions to the CNN interview. None said they’d interacted with Covid patients who denied having the disease. “Most patients are grateful, and thankful for our help,” one told her. “I have not experienced this, nor have I been told of this experience, ever,” another said.
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This in no way means that Doering’s account is untrue. But it provides, at minimum, some important context that was completely absent from the CNN interview and from all the media amplification that followed. Little or no effort was made to assess the scope of the problem that Doering so memorably described. How many Covid-19 patients in South Dakota are really so blinkered by disinformation that they’re enraged at their caregivers and, in their final moments on earth, still dispute what’s happening? No one bothered to find out.
Alisyn Camerota, the CNN anchor who conducted the interview, is an Emmy Award–winning journalist. Tracy Connor, who covered the story for the Daily Beast, is that publication’s executive editor. They and others simply repeated Doering’s anecdotes, framed as an astounding embodiment of red-state denialism. The Washington Post article quotes at length from Doering’s tweets and TV interview, and claims—without providing any further evidence—that Covid patients seen by other health care workers “are reluctant to acknowledge that they have been infected with a virus that President Trump has said will simply disappear.” Similar write-ups appeared in the Daily Beast and HuffPost.
Perhaps it’s worth considering that Huron Regional Medical Center has seen a total of six Covid-19 deaths to date. Beadle County, where Huron is located, has registered a total of 22 such deaths, 13 of which occurred since August 1. And in Sanborn County, where Doering lives, there’s been one Covid-19 death. It’s certainly possible that the other facilities where Doering works have seen a higher number of fatalities; she may indeed have watched a great many patients die, as so many frontline workers have. But when all we have is one person’s story, it’s hard to know exactly what it means.
In fact, this episode has some similarities to other weakly sourced accounts of Covid denialism in states that vote Republican. In July we heard reports of rampant “Covid parties.” One version of this story had college students in Tuscaloosa hosting parties with infected guests, and then betting on who else would catch the virus. Another took the form of a second-hand account from a nurse in San Antonio. A 30-year-old patient was said to have admitted just before he died that he’d gotten sick by going to a Covid party. “I thought it was a hoax,” he allegedly told the nurse, “but it’s not.”
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As WIRED’s Gilad Edelman reported at the time, none of these accounts held up to further scrutiny—yet each had been picked up from its original source and then amplified by larger publications that added little or no additional reporting. There’s good reason for these stories to be passed along, Edelman wrote. The hospital administrator who first went public with the story of the last-breath Covid-party confession is “trying desperately to get the American public to take the coronavirus seriously. If she hears a perfect cautionary tale, it isn’t necessarily her responsibility to investigate whether it’s too perfect before passing it along. It is, however, precisely the job of reporters.”
Doering’s account is similarly a perfect fit for a narrative that has already been written, and one that has been passed along by respected people and prestigious outlets with scarcely any diligence at all. Even just a small amount of additional reporting suggests that her experience of encountering deathbed denialism and fury at Joe Biden could be more of a disturbing anomaly than a window on our troubled times. Even Doering herself seemed to float this possibility at one point during her CNN interview. “We have a lot of patients who are very, very grateful for their care, and very thankful for what you do,” she said to the host. “But unfortunately that’s not what I’m remembering right now.”
Photographs: Go Nakamura/Getty Images; Husam Cakaloglu/Getty Images; Kerem Yucel/Getty Images
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