Renee Heller

Renee Logan Heller, emergency department nurse, took this photo of herself after performing CPR on a COVID-19 patient.


As of Friday evening, more than 435,000 people had died of COVID-19 in the United States — including more than 21,400 Pennsylvanians and 848 Lancaster County residents. As health care providers vaccinate Americans against COVID-19, they also now must contend with new, highly transmissible variants of the novel coronavirus from Britain, Brazil and South Africa.

We’ve seen how perilous the perpetuation of lies can be in the United States.

We’ve also learned the absolute necessity of truth-telling, particularly in a deadly pandemic.

Today, we praise the truth-tellers, the people who have chosen candor over the comfort of silence because they understand that lives are at stake.

In a moving and distressing column published by this newspaper last Sunday, intensive care unit nurse Nikkee Asashon wrote of the criticism she received after Gov. Tom Wolf shared her Dec. 6 LNP | LancasterOnline column, “A nurse’s plea: An intensive care unit nurse details COVID-19’s realities.”

As she read some of the responses on Wolf’s social media account, “My heart grew heavy,” she wrote last Sunday.

In her December column, Asashon had written in painful detail about her experiences caring for seriously ill and dying COVID-19 patients, and she implored readers to stop taking risks during the pandemic, to stay home, be safe, wear a mask, “be part of the solution.”

For that, she was told by one of Wolf’s social media commenters to “Suck it up buttercup.” She was accused of exaggerating the risks of COVID-19 (she had not). She was criticized for “fearmongering.”

She didn’t bother to answer those critics, because she knew she had written the truth. And she noted that while — after a year of fighting the pandemic — she and other nurses are “broken, beaten and bruised,” they remained in the fight.

“Unfortunately, in 2021, skepticism still exists; many people still deny the reality of the pandemic; and despite our efforts to help people understand the seriousness of all of this, many people continue to choose not to listen or believe what we share,” Asashon wrote. “This is not a reason for us to stop our efforts.”

Thank goodness for that, because those efforts are imperative. And brave.

Local emergency department nurse Renee Logan Heller exhibited similar courage when she excoriated the selfishness of those who don’t heed COVID-19 safety recommendations in a Dec. 20 LNP | LancasterOnline column.

“When did we become a society that only cares about things when we are directly affected by them?” Heller wrote. “How are we so selfish that we can call something a ‘hoax,’ simply because we have not experienced it firsthand?”

We ask those questions, too — often. And we find ourselves similarly appalled by the misperceptions that persist about this pandemic.

The truths

1. COVID-19 is real, as even some of the naysayers find when they fall ill.

2. Government engagement in a crisis matters. Without government scientists like Dr. Anthony Fauci and government funds, like the billions contributed to Operation Warp Speed, we would be in even worse shape today.

3. Competent government at every level matters. The news conference held Thursday by Lancaster County commissioners about establishing a mass vaccination site was frustratingly short on specifics. Those specifics should have been in place long before now.

4. The COVID-19 vaccines have been tested thoroughly and they’re safe and effective.

5. COVID-19 testing matters. Our continuing failure to provide immediate testing on demand has put us at a disadvantage in curtailing the virus’s spread.

6. Federalism is our strength. The virus does not respect state or national boundaries. Allowing different states to take different approaches to containing the virus has created a jagged patchwork of responses — and to our nation’s status as the global leader in COVID-19 cases and deaths.

7. To think we can ignore the rest of the world in a pandemic reflects potentially fatal scientific ignorance — and an utter lack of compassion. We’re relieved that under President Joe Biden, the United States has restored its relationship with the World Health Organization.

8. Leadership matters. Instead of pandering to those lying about the last presidential election, and strategizing about ways to retain power, our elected officials in Washington, D.C., and Harrisburg ought to be focusing on the greatest public health crisis of our lifetimes.

9. The truth matters. Science, not politics, needs to lead us through this crisis.

Dissecting a lie

Last Sunday, LNP | LancasterOnline’s Nicole C. Brambila examined a disturbing lie that began on Fox News’ “The Ingraham Angle” show: “the notion that federal stimulus money incentivizes health care professionals to inflate their COVID-19 numbers.”

As Brambila noted, “The thinking goes like this: Because most COVID-19 fatalities are among those 65 years and older with comorbidities, does the tally overstate the number killed by the virus by counting the fatality as COVID-19-related when in actuality the patient died of something else?”

Brambila is a news reporter who covers the health beat, so she can’t say what opinion journalists and this editorial board can — that such “thinking” is cynical and wrongheaded.

Robert N. Anderson, head of the Mortality Statistics Branch for the National Center for Health Statistics, told Brambila that the attending physicians who generally certify causes of death choose the disease or condition that started the chain of events that led to death.

When COVID-19 patients die, “they almost always die because of the virus, not the chronic condition,” Anderson said, noting that patients with chronic and other serious diseases can live for decades.

Dr. Amesh Adalja, a Pittsburgh-based infectious disease expert and a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said if anything, COVID-19 deaths are underestimated.

“Nobody is falsifying data,” Adalja said. “That’s just insulting.”

We guarantee that if hospital managers could choose between predictable, revenue-generating procedures like orthopedic surgeries and COVID-19 — which drains and endangers hospital staff — they’d pick the former.

COVID-19 isn’t a scam or a hoax or an exaggerated threat.

It’s devastating.

Which is why those who have insisted on truth-telling deserve our gratitude.

Dr. Leon Kraybill, chief of Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health’s geriatric division and post-acute care, and medical director at Luther Acres in Lititz, has written several columns for LNP | LancasterOnline urging public compliance with COVID-19 precautions.

Last Sunday, he noted that while effective COVID-19 vaccines now offer hope, we cannot relent in adhering to COVID-19 prevention measures — even after we’re vaccinated, because “it is not yet known if the vaccine prevents asymptomatic infection and spread to others.”

It’s not the message many of us wanted to read, but it’s the message we needed.

Painful realities

There’s a reason the cliche “the truth hurts” exists. Sometimes, it’s painful.

And sometimes telling it comes at great personal and professional risk.

When Dr. Deborah Birx began appearing at White House news conferences last year as part of the former administration’s COVID-19 team, we were happy to see a former Lancaster County resident on the national stage.

As LNP | LancasterOnline reported last March, Birx “lived for several years in Lancaster County, attending Lampeter-Strasburg schools, where she found success in science fairs, both locally and nationally.”

How disappointing then to watch as the distinguished immunologist remained silent when the former president suggested — bizarrely and dangerously — that injecting disinfectants or ultraviolet light might kill the novel coronavirus in humans. Birx later suggested that the former president merely had been thinking things through “out loud.”

By contrast, Dr. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, did not hold back the truth — and paid terribly for his honesty.

As The New York Times noted earlier this month, Fauci’s insistence on telling the often-difficult truths about the pandemic, and about the former administration’s handling of it, made him a villain to some Trump supporters. Fauci’s grown children were harassed and threatened, and the danger to him and his wife became so severe that he requires Secret Service protection.

He refused to compromise his integrity or science. “Even if I wasn’t very effective in changing everybody’s minds,” Fauci told the Times, “the idea that they knew that nonsense could not be spouted without my pushing back on it, I felt was important.”

He thought it would be better for the country if he remained in his role, and it was.

In his first press briefing Jan. 21 as President Biden’s chief medical adviser, Fauci said it was “liberating” to be able to “get up here and talk about what you know — what the evidence, what the science is — and know that’s it, let the science speak.”

It’s liberating for us all. It’s the truth — and our adherence to it — that eventually will free us from this pandemic.

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