'None of Us Are Immune': Growing Number of Elected Officials Diagnosed With Covid-19

Miami Mayor Francis Suarez speaks during a roundtable discussion with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Miami-Dade County mayors during the coronavirus pandemic, Tuesday, July 14, 2020, in Miami. Suarez was diagnosed with Covid-19 in March.

Miami Mayor Francis Suarez speaks during a roundtable discussion with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Miami-Dade County mayors during the coronavirus pandemic, Tuesday, July 14, 2020, in Miami. Suarez was diagnosed with Covid-19 in March. Associated Press

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

In March, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez was the first prominent elected official to receive a positive test result for the coronavirus. Dozens have followed since then.

At the beginning of March, when the coronavirus pandemic had yet to fully take hold in the United States, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez attended a meeting with a delegation from Brazil, including the country’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, and his staff. Two days later, media reports revealed the president’s press secretary had tested positive for Covid-19.

Suarez couldn’t immediately remember if he’d spoken to the man or gotten close to him during the course of the two-day meeting. Had they shaken hands? Spoken face-to-face? And then someone sent along photos from the event.

“And it was clear, in the photo, that I had been within a certain proximity to him,” Suarez said. “When that all became public, I spoke to our health experts and they basically advised me that I needed to quarantine immediately.”

Suarez was in a meeting, poised to declare a state of emergency for Miami because of the virus he just learned he’d been exposed to. He filmed the declaration and then headed home to begin a 14-day quarantine. The mayor had no symptoms at the time but agreed to be tested for the virus, though he was sure his results would be negative. The next morning, he got the call: he had tested positive for Covid-19.

“I was the second person that tested positive in all of Dade County,” he said. “It was so public at that time, but there was so little that we knew. I think the first person had tested positive the day before me. It’s hard to even go back and get context—it was so early, and the fact that somebody in Miami had tested positive and there were elected officials in the vicinity—it was a big, big deal.”

Suarez was the first prominent elected official to announce a Covid-19 diagnosis. Since March, dozens have followed, including governors (Oklahoma’s Kevin Stitt, Missouri’s Mike Parson, and Virginia’s Ralph Northam), mayors (Atlanta’s Keisha Lance Bottoms, Nashua, New Hampshire’s Jim Donchess, and Buz Craft in Vidalia, Louisiana) and state legislators, including at least 26 in a single outbreak in the Mississippi statehouse.

Some, like Parson, are noted opponents of mask mandates, even as they encourage residents to wear them. Others, including Bottoms, emphasized they adhered to every recommended guideline and still ended up contracting the virus.

“This is scary,” she told CNN in July, days after both she and her husband received positive test results. “We’ve done all the things that we thought we should do, and for us to still test positive, I think, really speaks to how easily this virus is spread and how obviously none of us are immune from it.”

To date, nearly 7.2 million Americans have tested positive for Covid-19, and more than 206,000 have died from it, according to the the New York Times' case database. Statistically, 75-80% of cases are mild, and the vast majority of elected officials who have disclosed positive test results say they've had mild to moderate symptoms and few, if any, lingering aftereffects. But a few elected officials who fell ill with the coronavirus have died, such as state Rep. Reggie Bagala in Louisiana and Michael Yun, a city council member in Jersey City, New Jersey.  

For Suarez, the experience of falling ill at the early stage of the pandemic, when so much less was known about the virus, was unsettling, even if he didn’t allow himself to dwell on it at the time.

“I was the first prominent person, in the sense of elected officials, to get it, and it became national news very quickly,” he said. “So I just went into that mode, kind of into a zone, where you’re just doing things. I was very busy. I was doing 10, 11, 15 national interviews a day for the first couple of days, and so I didn’t have time to think about it too much.”

Suarez also made the decision to live blog his quarantine, posting daily videos online detailing his symptoms, his temperature and his experience in isolation ("I felt like it was giving people a sense of hope that if they did get it, they would be OK," he said of the project). His symptoms never progressed beyond a mild fever and congestion, he said, though there was a moment midway through the first week where he woke up unable to breathe and began to panic.

“I was completely congested, and then it felt like the left side of my chest was paralyzed,” he said. “I freaked out because I had been doing that daily video blog that was being watched by a lot of people, and I was like, ‘What if I start deteriorating and I have to tell people publicly?’”

But it never got worse. On day 11 of quarantine, Suarez received his last positive test result; a test on day 14 was inconclusive and tests on day 17 and 18 were negative. He spent the two-week quarantine working, for the most part, while feeling strange having the house to himself instead of sharing the space with his wife and two young children, who stayed at his in-laws’ and kept in touch only via phone and video calls. That isolation, he said, was the worst part of the experience.

“I was just kind of roaming around my house, and it was just a little bit of a weird experience and not something I am likely ever going to experience again,” he said. “It was interesting, because I had a lot of time to myself, and a lot of privacy—all the things you don’t have when you’re married with kids in your own house. We didn’t want to bring them to the house because we weren’t sure if they would understand that I couldn’t see them, so we just did everything by FaceTime and that was the hardest part, for sure.”

Four months later in Columbia, Tennessee, Mayor Chaz Molder had the opposite experience. Molder and his wife tested positive for the coronavirus on July 15, two days after she began exhibiting symptoms, including shortness of breath and loss of her senses of smell and taste. The couple immediately went into quarantine with their three children after conferring with the family pediatrician.

“Of course our first thoughts were, ‘My God, what about the kids?’” Molder said. “We consulted with our children’s pediatrician, and she just told us that we needed to quarantine with the kids. They had already been exposed, and we needed to keep them from potentially exposing other people and to just assume that they had it with us. Unless they developed symptoms, there was nothing else to do.”

For 14 days, the family hunkered down at home. Both the mayor and his wife had moderate symptoms, including temporary loss of smell and taste and difficulty breathing.

“It was painful,” he said. “It felt like there was a knife in your chest every time you’d take a deep breath.”

Despite his illness, Molder, a full-time attorney as well as the city’s mayor, continued to work. He did interviews and conferred with city officials, trying to keep life as normal as possible. After a few days, the family decided to treat the two-week quarantine as a unique opportunity rather than a chore.

“It was just like, when else, ever, in our lives will we be together like this, quarantined, with really no exposure to the outside world? We decided, ‘Let’s just take this in stride a little bit,’” he said. “We tried to see the positive. We had family and friends who would leave stuff on our steps out front, food and games for the kids. We tried to focus on the time together.”

But still, it was frustrating, he said. His family had taken the threat of the virus seriously from the beginning, washing their hands, maintaining social distancing and wearing masks. But even as mayor, Molder was powerless to require those behaviors city-wide after Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee granted that authority only to county-level officials.

“We were very conscientious before we got Covid, so it is a little bit of a disappointment, because we were doing all of the right things,” he said. “So we tried to transition to a mindset of, ‘OK, now we have to do the right things while we have it.’”

Molder’s children never developed symptoms, though he thinks it’s likely they would have tested positive for the virus simply because of their close proximity when he and his wife were contagious. After their two-week quarantine, neither adult had lingering complications beyond trouble taking deep breaths, a symptom that has since subsided.

Molder is confident he’s the one who brought the virus home—a man he spoke with one-on-one at a city council meeting tested positive shortly before he did—and despite presumably having antibodies now, he continues to wear a mask even though his county still doesn’t mandate it. There is frustration there, he noted, but even elected officials without the power to enact sweeping mandates can still lead by example.

“I was at a ribbon-cutting yesterday and someone asked me, ‘Haven’t you already had Covid? Why are you wearing your mask?’” he said. “I said, ‘First of all, I’m wearing my mask because I’m asking others to do it.’ But also...there’s always a fear and the possibility that we could get it again, which is why we still continue to do the things you’d do if you didn’t want to get Covid. Unfortunately, it’s created a lot of divisiveness for our country, but the opinions that we choose to listen to and follow are those of the medical experts, and I think that’s all we really can do at this point … Mayors have led the state, and I think that’s what being a mayor is about.”

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a staff correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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