Are Covid Patients Gasping ‘It Isn’t Real’ As They Die?

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.”

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Subscribe to WIRED and stay smart with more of your favorite Ideas writers.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.