When President Donald Trump was diagnosed with COVID-19 last week, the measures taken for his care were swift and substantial. Trump was flown via helicopter to the hospital within days of his diagnosis and given costly (and in some cases, experimental) drugs typically reserved for extreme cases of the virus. He urged Americans not to fear the coronavirus in a Monday tweet, citing the great advancements in treatment scientists and doctors have made over the past few months.
But the average American wouldn’t have access to the world-class care Trump received. And if they did, they couldn’t afford it. Many are treating themselves at home, armed with chicken noodle soup and Flonase. Those who do visit a hospital are often left with enormous bills—some as high as $400,000. Like he paid no federal income taxes, Trump won’t pay his medical bills—the federal government will. The New York Times estimates that Trump’s high level of care would cost the average American more than $100,000.
The disparities began long before Trump fell ill. The president has had ample access to regular testing (albeit rapid testing, which isn’t as accurate as the more widely available PCR tests). When Dayan Marquina, a digital designer in New York, was sick with the virus in March, she couldn’t even get a test. Although she was gasping for air, doctors told her she wasn’t eligible for a test because she didn’t have a fever. “We can’t test you. We don’t have enough tests. And we are only testing the people that have the fevers, all of the symptoms and the fevers,” Marquina says she was told. “But since you have all the symptoms, but no fever, we can’t test you.”
This was after she walked seven blocks to the hospital while gasping with every breath. “I did not want to get an ambulance because those cost money,” says Marquina. “And it would just not be cool for me to call a cab while I have COVID and put anybody at risk.” Trump, on the other hand, flew to and from the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in a helicopter. Air ambulances, which are often not covered by health insurance, cost around $38,770.
Trump also received doses of remdesivir, a drug that is typically administered to patients with severe COVID-19 cases; an antibody “cocktail” from drugmaker Regeneron that’s in the midst of clinical trials (Trump received it through a “compassionate use” exception by the FDA); dexamethasone, a corticosteroid that can fight inflammation caused by the virus; famotidine, an antacid that early observational studies have linked with improved survival among hospitalized COVID-19 patients; zinc and vitamin D, supplements that some studies report can support the immune system; melatonin, a natural sleep aid that some researchers believe is a good complement to COVID-19 treatments; and aspirin, a fever-reducing medication that also has been used to reduce the risk of pulmonary-related COVID-19 side effects.
When Nadia-Elysse Harris, a content strategist from Los Angeles, came down with the coronavirus a week before Trump did, she was on her own.
“I had been the sickest I can remember being in my life and the president of the United States had essentially said it was no big deal,” writes Harris. “He touted drugs and knowledge that were not available to me as I cried in a puddle of my own sweat and called my doctor for help. Tylenol and Flonase were all that I was offered. I was only to go to the hospital if I could not breathe. I was literally on my own for anything else.”
Marquina, and her husband who got sick with the virus at the same time, were also told to take Tylenol. But they didn’t have any.
“We wanted to go to the bodega to get a Tylenol, but both of us knew we were really sick, and we didn’t want to expose anybody,” she says. “We don’t have family in [New York City]…and all my friends left the city when the pandemic started. So we were kind of SOL.”
Like Marquina and Harris, many patients are treating themselves at home. One night Harris’ pain was so bad she wanted to go to the emergency room. “My face hurt so much that I called my diagnosing physician and asked whether I should go to the emergency room, and he was clear that I was only to call 911 if I had trouble breathing,” she says. Marquina was admitted to the hospital overnight but sent home even though she could hardly breathe.
Luckily, Marquina’s hospital bill wasn’t nearly as much as it could have been. She has to pay a little over $500 (her insurance from her job as a digital designer covered another $200) for an emergency room visit and a chest X-ray. She had enough savings to cover the bill, but had this happened five years ago, it would have been a financial nightmare.
“I barely had any savings back then, I would have had no extra money,” she says. Now, she’s much more financially stable and grateful for that. “I don’t think others are as fortunate as I was. Especially during the pandemic, when a lot of people lost their jobs, they probably wouldn’t have been able to afford [the bill].”
As of June 2020, 8 million people have lost their insurance due to pandemic-related job loss. When family members attached to those plans are factored in, 15 million people have been left uninsured. The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear a challenge to the Affordable Care Act in November. Many fear that the court could repeal the act, especially if Judge Amy Coney Barrett is confirmed. Nearly 30 million people would lose their health insurance, estimates the Economic Policy Institute.
“I was very angry when I saw what Trump said, about let’s not let it take over our lives. I think that this is the time where we need to be very cautious,” she says. “We still don’t know what this virus could do. There could be a second wave. It could mutate. We don’t know much about it. And I think that he shouldn’t have said that.”
The reality for those fighting COVID-19 remains grim. While scientists and doctors know much more than they did in March and have access to better treatment options, the coronavirus is still very much something to fear.
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