Conspiracy theories about the pandemic and lies recited on social media — or at White House news conferences — had penetrated deep into their community. When refrigerated trailers were brought in to relieve local hospitals’ overflowing morgues, people said they were stage props. Agitated and unmasked relatives stood outside the ICU insisting that their intubated relatives only had the flu. Many believed the doctors and nurses hailed elsewhere for their sacrifices were conspiring to make money by falsifying covid-19 diagnoses.
Boucher and her colleagues were pained by those attacks — and infuriated by them. Unlike their exhaustion, that anger rarely showed on their faces, but it was often there: as they scrolled Facebook to see local ministers saying God was greater than any virus, or stood in line with unmasked grocery shoppers who joked loudly about the covid hoax.
On that December morning when she became the first person to receive the coronavirus vaccine in the 21 counties served by her hospital’s parent company, Ballad Health, Boucher breathed deeply as she described what she and her co-workers were up against. They were fighting not just for their patients’ lives, she said, but “against misinformation and reckless practices that have led to this virus getting so out of control.”
“I will never stop trying to convince everyone about the reality of covid-19,” she said.
As she rolled up her sleeve for her first injection of the newly approved Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, Boucher didn’t know if the rift in her community could be healed. But she hoped her example would at least inspire others to get inoculated…
Jamie Swift, a registered nurse who oversees infection prevention for Johnston and Ballad’s other hospitals, recalled her realization that “people would trust Facebook more than they would trust us” — and her horror at the consequences as the winter surge began.
“You work all day, and you see people who are struggling to breathe, and you see the horrible side of what covid can do. And then you go home and you see restaurants that are packed and grocery stores where person after person is going in without a mask,” said Swift, who in December was briefly hospitalized herself with the coronavirus. “There have been times when I broke down and cried. It was just devastating, because you leave the hospital and you come out into a community that doesn’t believe that it’s real and in what it can do.”