COVID-19 Key Issue for Older Voters

Pubished in the Pawtucket Times on November 2, 2020

With Tuesday’s presidential election, hopefully most voters will have reviewed the policy and political positions of President Donald J. Trump and his Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden.  Throughout the months of this heated political campaign, especially during the two debates and at the town meetings each candidate held on the same evening, their positions diverged sharply on major issues, specifically the economy, immigration, foreign policy, global warming, abortion and COVID-19. In the final stretch of the presidential campaign, winning the war against COVID-19 has quickly become the top issue of voters. 

Over the months, Trump, 74, has barnstormed throughout the country, especially in battleground states, hoping to capture enough electoral votes to win a second term on Nov. 3.  While states reduce the size of gatherings to reduce the spread of COVID-19, throughout the campaign Trump’s rallies have continued to bring thousands of supporters together, with many flaunting local and state coronavirus-related crowd restrictions by not wearing masks or social distancing.  

However, Biden, 77, is always seen wearing a mask, urging his supporters at online and drive-in events to support his candidacy.  At those events, the former vice president called Trump rallies “super-spreader events,” and he stressed the importance of following the advice of public health and medical experts as to preventing the spread of COVID-19.

Differing Views on COVID-19

The 2020 presidential campaign has been overshadowed by the COVID 19 pandemic, with 9 million confirmed cases, 227,000 Americans dying from the coronavirus and an economic downturn forcing more than 31 million people to file for unemployment. During his rallies, Trump claimed “the nation has turned the corner,” calling for the country to “return to normalcy” even as COVID 19 hot spots were popping up across the nation.  Trump also promised the development of a vaccine and distribution after the election and treatment regimens.  Lately, he has suggested that physicians and hospitals are just inflating the number of COVID-19 deaths for profit, drawing the ire of the American Medical Association.

At an Oct. 18 Nevada rally, Trump charged that if Biden is elected there will be more coronavirus pandemic lockdowns because “he’ll listen to the scientists.” The president charged that will result “in a massive depression.”

In stark contrast, Biden countered Trump’s call for normalcy and his rosy assessment of a COVID-19 vaccine release by stating, “We’re about to go into a dark winter…He [has no clear plan, and there’s no prospect that a vaccine is going to be available for the majority of the American people before the middle of next year.”

 Oftentimes, Trump’s messaging of the importance of wearing a mask has not been clear, often times contradicting the Centers for the Disease Control and Prevention and the White House COVID-19 Task Force.  “I was okay with the masks.  I was good with it, but I’ve heard very different stories on masks,” he said during his town hall on NBC on Oct. 15.   The president opposes a mandate requiring the wearing of masks and favors leaving this decision to state governors and local leaders.

Turning a Deaf Ear to Public Health Experts

As COVID-19 spreads like wildfire across the nation, Trump and many of his supporters at his large campaign gatherings and even some GOP lawmakers continue to not wear masks or practice social distancing to stop the spread of the disease, their actions ignoring the warnings of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of the White House COVID-19 Task Force.

According to an Oct. 12 CNN tweet, “Dr. Fauci says Pres. Trump resuming in-person rallies is “asking for trouble” and “now is… a worse time to do that because when you look at what’s going on in the United States it’s really very troublesome. A number of states, right now, are having increase in test positivity.”

During an interview with CNBC on Oct. 28, Reuters reported, that Dr. Fauci stated, “We are in a very different trajectory.  We’re going in the wrong direction,” noting the COVID-19 cases are increasing in 47 states and hospitals are being overwhelmed by these patients.”

“If things do not change,” Dr. Fauci warned, “If they continue on the course we’re on, there’s gonna be a whole lot of pain in this country with regard to additional cases and hospitalizations and deaths.”

Now researchers are beginning to shed light on Trump’s large rally gatherings and the spread of the COVID-19 among the supporters who attended the events.

Zach Nayer, a resident at Riverside Regional Medical Center in Newport News, and a colleague reviewed the number of new COVID-19 cases for the 14 days before and after each Trump rally from late June to a Sept. 25 Newport News event, and published their findings on Oct. 16 on the health news site STAT.

According to the researchers, the spikes in COVID-19 cases occurred in seven of the 14 cities and townships where rallies were held: Tulsa, Oklahoma; Phoenix; Old Forge, Pa.; Bemidji and Mankato in Minnesota; and Oshkosh and Weston, Wis.

Meanwhile on Oct. 30, Stanford researchers, studying 18 Trump rallies (between June 20 and Sept. 22) concluded that those large events resulted in more than 30,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and likely caused more than 700 deaths among attendees and their close contacts.

No End in Sight

Don’t expect the COVID-19 pandemic to end soon as the number of those infected and deaths continue to spiral out of control.  

According to the COVID Tracking Project, COVID-19 cases increased by 97,080 on Oct. 31, by far the largest one-day jump since the beginning of the pandemic last March, with Midwestern states leading a wave of infections, hospitalizations and deaths across the nation just before the Tuesday’s presidential election.  Experts say that those statistics refutes Trumps charges that the number of COVID 19 cases is growing due to increased testing. 

America’s oldest seniors have lived through the 1918 flu pandemic, the stock market crash of 1929, the Great Depression and World War II. Now they, along with aging Baby Boomers, face the risk of severe illness and death from COVID-19.  Among adults, the risk for severe illness from COVID-19 increases with age. According to AARP, 95 percent of the people across the nation that have died of COVID-19 were 50 and older even though most of the coronavirus cases have been reported in younger than 50.

Before older voters cast their ballots they must consider which presidential candidate’s leadership style can marshal the nation’s resources and devise the best strategy to combat COVID-19 and stop its spread. 

Do we reopen the nation, opening schools and businesses or do we consider lockdowns if recommended by the nation’s public health and medical experts?  Do we consider a “national mask mandate” or do we just leave it up to state governors to decide whether to implement an order requiring people to wear them in public? 

Your vote matters. For you older voters, it just might save your life.

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The Greatest Generation’s Last Hurrah

Published in Pawtucket Times, November 15, 2014

The G.I. Generation, born between 1901 to 1924, (coined the “The Greatest Generation” by nationally acclaimed journalist Tom Brokaw), grew up in the Great Depression, and went on to fight World War II, considered to be the largest and deadliest global military conflict in the world’s history. The world-wide war directly involved more than 100 million people from over 30 countries.

With the enactment of a formal declarations of war in Dec. 1941, the ranks of the United States military, by draft and voluntary enlistment, ultimately swelled to
16 million soldiers. Ultimately, those serving in World War II came from every state, ethnic group and race, from poor and well-to-do families.

World War II veterans put their youth on hold to defend the country. Their ages ranged from ages 17 (with parental permission) to 37 years. When discharged a grateful country’s G.I. Bill Education benefits would send them to college, propelling them into professional careers, giving them a good income to raise a family and to economically spur the economy. .

Brokaw, a well-know American television journalist and author best known as the anchor and managing editor of NBC Nightly News, who now serves as a Special Correspondent for NBC News and works on documentaries for other news outlets, claims that this was “the greatest generation any society has ever produced.” He asserted that these men and women fought not for fame and recognition, but because it was just the “right thing to do.”

The Last Man Standing

In their middle years, America’s “The Greatest Generation” would see the passing of the last Civil War veteran. On August 2, 1956, the 20th century veterans would learn about the death of Albert Henry Woolson, 106, the last surviving member of the Grand Army of the Republic, who fight in the nation’s bloody American Civil War. In 1864, Woolson had enlisted as a drummer boy in Company C 1st Minnesota Heavy Artillery Regiment.

Woolson is considered to be the last surviving Civil War veteran on either side whose status is undisputed. At least three men who died after him claimed to be Confederate veterans but their veteran status has been questioned. .

According to the August 3, 1956 issue of the St. Petersburg Times, upon Woolson’s death, President Dwight D. Eisenhower stated: “The American people have lost the last personal link with the Union Army. His passing brings sorrow to the hearts of all of us who cherished the memory of the brave men on both sides of the War Between the States.”

In 2011, a World War I veteran was nationally recognition, like Civil War Veteran Woolson, for being the last American doughboy. Frank Buckles, 101, had the distinction of being the last survivor of 4.73 million Americans who fought in the “War to End All Wars.” The 16-year old enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1917 and served with a detachment from Fort Riley, driving ambulances and motorcycles near the front lines in France. Buckles left military service with the rank of corporal.

In his final years, Buckles served as Honorary Chairman of the World War I Memorial Foundation. As chairman, he called for a World War I memorial similar to other war memorials inside the Washington, D.C. Beltway. He would campaign for the District of Columbia War Memorial to be renamed the National World War I Memorial.

Upon Buckles passing, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki, issued a release, stating, We have lost a living link to an important era in our nation’s history,” whose distant generation was the first to witness the awful toll of modern, mechanized warfare. “But we have also lost a man of quiet dignity who dedicated his final years to ensuring the sacrifices of his fellow doughboys are appropriately commemorated,” adds Shinseki.

The Twilight Years of WWII Veterans

On November 11, there were fewer aging World War II veterans attending ceremonies held throughout the nation honoring them. With their medium age pegged at 92 years, many of these individuals are quickly becoming frail, their numbers dwindling as the years go by.

Over the next two decades, America’s World War II soldiers are dying quickly. We will again see another generation of soldiers passing, like Woolson or Buckles.

At the end of World War II, there were 16 million who served our nation in that horrific war. Thirty years ago, when President Ronald Reagan traveled to the battle site of Pointe du Hoc, located at a 100 ft cliff overlooking the English Channel on the coast of Normandy in northern France, there were only 10.7 million U.S. veterans left. The President came to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Normandy invasion, recognizing the American Ranger team that took heavy casualties in capturing the German-occupied cliff.

According to the U.S. Veteran’s Administration, in 2014, our frail World War II veterans are dying at a quick rate of just 555 a day. This means there are only 1.34 million veterans remaining. By 2036, The National World War II Museum predicts there will be no living veterans of this global war that took place from 1939 to 1945, to recount their own personal battle experiences. When this happens their stories, like Woolson and Buckles, will only be told in history books or by television documentaries or by historians and academics.

Last Tuesday, Veterans Day ceremonies and activities were held in 15 Rhode Island communities to honor those who served in the U.S. Armed Forces. Today, there are only 3,951 World War II veterans alive in the Ocean State. The elderly veteran’s numbers dwindle at these celebrations and even at their reunions because of their frailty and health issues.

We are posed to see a generation of veterans vanish right before our eyes. I say, cherish them while you can. Urge those around you who fought in World War II to tell stories and oral histories, for the sake of future generations. They have much to say, we have much to learn.

The National World War II Museum in Louisiana. To learn more about the Greatest Generation and the global war they fought in, go to http://www.nationalww2museum.org.

My commentary is dedicated to Second Lt. Frank M. Weiss, my father, who died in 2003 at 89 years old.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.