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When bad news is personal: Journalists, politicians fighting the virus

For millions around the globe waking up Wednesday, the big news was that Prince Charles has the coronavirus.

His symptoms are said to be mild, and the prince is believed to have gotten the virus from his high number of public engagements, during which he would try to stop himself and remember not to shake hands.

But for me, the news is that an old colleague, David Von Drehle, has mild to moderate symptoms, battling “waves of fever, I was drifting half in and half out of sleep. I was wearing a down jacket with the hood cinched around my head. I was buried under the covers, teeth chattering.” He’s “thankful” that it’s not worse.

And that another old colleague, Anne Kornblut, is fighting the disease, “telling my kids to back away from me, while informing them that this scary thing upending the entire planet is now inside our house. Inside their mom. My daughter cried and asked if I will get better. I couldn’t hug her.”

It’s not that these people are more deserving of sympathy because they’re journalists. Doctors, nurses, hospital staffers, police officers, even retail clerks are the ones on the front lines, their stories mostly untold. Journalists have a platform, of course, but they and their families are coping just like everyone else. The thing about this virus is that it doesn’t care if you are a working stiff, a prince, or a movie star.

The difference for me is that I know some of these people, and that wipes away the abstractions. It’s how so many of us felt when Tom Hanks and his wife got the virus in Australia (though I’ve only met the actor once, for a brief interview). When Andrew Cuomo tells the administration that he needs 26,000 more ventilators or that many people will die, it’s hard to wrap your head around such a figure. When people at your own news organization get the virus –as have six Fox News staffers in New York, now under self-quarantine –it hits home.

Von Drehle, with whom I shared a small New York office many years ago and later sat nearby in a Washington newsroom, now lives in Kansas City.


“I did not travel during the outbreak,” the former Washington Post editor and Time reporter says in his Post column. “I don’t mix in large groups. (On second thought, there was a college basketball game.) I earn my living by solitary work from my own home, and I adopted every recommended hygiene and distancing technique weeks before the president took the pandemic seriously. Bottom line: I don’t know where I picked it up. It’s everywhere.”

Dave says he hears people on TV all day talking about testing, but there was no testing in his area. A kind ER doctor listened to his lungs in a hospital parking lot, said he probably has the virus and told him to come back if he got worse.

“It’s going to be a race now to see whether I can finish this column before I pass out,” Von Drehle writes.

Kornblut, a longtime Washington Post reporter and editor, is now a Facebook executive living in California. After a trip to New York, she says on her page, “I had to get in bed and go to sleep. It hit me like a truck.”

Her son wrote up the development for their home newspaper: “Anne Kornblut has the coronavirus but do not worry it is not the bad kind. Please note that you should not be within ten feet of Anne.”

Kornblut says the health department “called to inform me to stay away from everyone, including my children. So who should take care of them if my husband tests positive, too? ‘We haven’t had that scenario yet,’ the public health nurse said.”

Her husband has since tested positive for the virus.

I was even harder hit by news yesterday that Alan Finder, a retired New York Times editor and reporter and onetime City Hall bureau chief, has died from the virus.

He was extremely gracious to me when I was a rookie reporter decades ago at New Jersey’s Bergen Record. Smart, savvy and a terrific writer, he was always generous and someone I looked up to.

Times reporter Kevin Sack tweeted that Finder was “a terrific reporter, a calming presence and, as anyone who knew him will attest, one of the menschiest guys around. RIP.”

I also know people in the world of politics who have been affected. Amy Klobuchar revealed that her husband, John Bessler, has the virus, and was hospitalized in Virginia after registering “very low oxygen levels.” The senator and former presidential candidate told MSNBC that “you can’t go and visit your loved one. I would love to be at my husband’s side right now.”

I’ve interviewed another former presidential candidate, Rand Paul, numerous times. He has come under sharp criticism from some fellow lawmakers because he continued to work for six days, including a visit to the Senate gym, after being tested for the virus, though he self-quarantined as soon as he got a positive result.


In a column for USA Today, Paul said he sought a test, even though that was not recommended by health officials, because he’d been traveling extensively and had part of his lung removed seven months ago:

“For those who want to criticize me for lack of quarantine, realize that if the rules on testing had been followed to a T, I would never have been tested and would still be walking around the halls of the Capitol.”

There are, as I mentioned, so many individual stories among the 60,000 confirmed virus cases in America. The Washington Post, to its credit, spotlighted some of them:

The Rev. Jadon Hartsuff, an Episcopal priest in D.C., who first felt drained after a Sunday service.

Mike Saag, an infectious disease doctor in Alabama, who developed a cough and was bone-tired.

Ritchie Torres, a New York City councilman from the Bronx, whose ordeal began with a general sickly feeling. “It is psychologically unsettling to know I am carrying a virus that could harm my loved ones,” he says.

Indeed, this entire crisis has been psychologically unsettling. It’s that way for journalists looking at the struggles of other journalists, health workers looking at the struggles of other health workers, or all of us, as Americans, looking at the suffering in our country. Even if those bearing the brunt aren’t royalty.


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