Column:  When his mom died of COVID, virus skeptics chimed in on social media. Will Trump’s illness convince them?

John Paul Caire, left, with his father and sister.
John Paul Caire, left, with his father and sister. His mother died of COVID-19 in April.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

On March 25, John Paul Caire, 21, went upstairs to check on his mother, Terese, a beloved La Canada Flintridge elementary school teacher who was seriously ill with COVID-19. He found his mother in a chair, her lips and fingers blue, her breathing strained.

His sister Maria, 22, was downstairs, checking on her sick father and calling an advice nurse for guidance.

“Get them to the emergency room immediately,” Maria was told.


John Paul, a college baseball player, knew his mother was too weak to make it downstairs on her own.

“She couldn’t get up,” said John Paul. “She said give me a minute, give me a minute, and I’ll get up. She said it repeatedly, and she really was not making any sense.”

He put his mother over his shoulder and carried her downstairs. Terese’s husband John, despite being deathly ill, didn’t want his son or daughter to take the chance of getting sicker by driving their mother to ER. The brother and sister were COVID-positive themselves, with milder symptoms. So John drove his wife to the emergency room in Verdugo Hills, and she was transferred to Keck Medical Center in grave condition.

For weeks, Terese — who was proud of her Greek heritage, loved teaching, dancing and cooking dinner for her family — fought for her life in the hospital. Twice, she seemed to be rebounding, and the family thought she might make it back home. But about a month after being hospitalized, she was gone, just 57 years old.

The Caire's dogs, Petunia, left, and Roxie, walk near a portrait of Terese Caire at the family's home.
The Caire’s dogs, Petunia, left, and Roxie, walk near a portrait of Terese Caire at the family’s home in La Cañada.
(Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

The Caires were among several people I reached out to who lost loved ones to COVID-19, only to have to watch the president rejecting the advice of public health experts and serving as poster boy for those who defiantly refused to wear masks or keep a safe distance from others.

For John Paul Caire, the president’s rosy proclamations about the pandemic during the time his mother was sick had been grating enough. Then, in the midst of his grief, shortly after his mother’s death John Paul Caire saw social media posts by two friends who seemed to mirror the president’s views.

“It is a hoax only old people r affected by it,” wrote one of them. “Only 6% of the COVID deaths were caused solely from COVID. That’s only 11,000 deaths. Not worth shutting down our country…”

“My whole family had it,” John Paul responded. “My mom died from it. You are misunderstanding the data from the CDC. There are nearly 200,000 deaths from COVID, and nobody knows who it will affect until it does. It isn’t a hoax. I would be careful about what you say.”

“[Look] bro I’ve been praying for u and ur family,” the friend responded. “I had it too. But at the end of the day the survival rate is 99%. U don’t shut a country down for that.”

That’s not only heartless and clueless; it’s also a good example of the kind of false dichotomy presented by the president and others on his team. It’s never been as simple as deciding between opening and closing. Rather, it’s about making a gradual reopening possible by taking common sense precautions and respecting the health of others.

President Trump “made people think it wasn’t going to affect them,” said John Paul. And after the president defied sound medical advice on masks and distancing, it seemed to John Paul like only a matter of time before the president paid the price.

And what did he think when he heard the president was sick? “I mean, I wasn’t surprised,” he said. So many people think it won’t affect them, “But look what it did to us.”

And — with the death toll having surpassed 200,000 — what it did to thousands of families.

Inglewood resident Tony Wafford lost four relatives to COVID-19 in the span of a week early in May. On Friday, he was glued to the television as a helicopter waited at the White House to take President Trump to the hospital.

“Sometimes the universe can get your attention” even when nothing else can, Wafford said of the news that Trump, after downplaying the threat of the coronavirus for months, had tested positive.

Wafford said there were times in recent months when it crossed his mind that if Trump got sick, the president might finally “be able to see the legitimacy of it” and act in the public interest rather than his own. But as a Black man who lost his brother, his wife’s brother and two nephews, Wafford said he couldn’t wish the disease or its ill effects on Trump or anyone else.

“I had to wrestle with my humanity. I think the guy is not a nice human being,” Wafford said. “But maybe because he’s ill, it’s a call to us to come back to our best selves and to our humanity.”

As the Wafford family grieves, and copes, so too does the Arleta family of Griselda Nava. Nava, who is studying to be a nurse, lost her mother to COVID-19 in May, after she got sick at a nursing facility in Reseda. Florentina Lopez, who died at 66, had been a seamstress and worked in a slaughterhouse.

Nava, who has been extra cautious since losing her mother, told me she and her husband recently went out to dinner for the first time in months.

“We ate outdoors and made sure to distance and stay safe,” said Nava. “I don’t usually go out unless I have to go grocery shopping, and I go early in the morning.”

Nava said she suspects that some people haven’t taken the threat seriously because they haven’t lost a loved one, or because they’ve been listening to the wrong messengers. She’s betting the president has a better chance of beating the virus than people like her mother, because the best possible care will be available to him.

“I think they may have some medical treatment that we in the normal population don’t have,” Nava said.

In July, I wrote about the lonely crusade of Newport Beach resident and retired teacher Lynn Lorenz, who fired off letters to the editor in a crusade taking on coronavirus deniers. Orange County had become a center of the resistance against advice on masks and distancing.

It was Lorenz who tipped me to emergency room doctor Eric Alcouloumre of Laguna Beach, whose daily Facebook posts try to set people straight on the best known ways to limit the spread of the deadly virus — wash your hands, keep your distance and wear a mask.

When I caught up with Alcouloumre on Friday, he said that given Trump’s reckless behavior, the news of his positive test was unsurprising.

“I don’t wish ill on him, but it’s not unexpected,” Alcouloumre said. “I’m not a big believer in karma, but I am a believer in science and this was very predictable. He’s out there not wearing masks, mingling with people, and distancing himself from the smartest people in the country who are helping to get us through this. At every turn, he’s done the wrong thing.”