Collateral damage from the COVID-19 crisis is surfacing in the lives of people around us

In a heartbreaking photo, Eileen Kelley wears a mask in the hospita, while her husband, Joseph Fenton, lies in bed. He died on June 19. Credit. Eileen Kelley's public Facebook page.

We may never be able to assess the collateral damage from the COVID-19 virus, but some of it is surfacing in the lives of people around us.

Take Joseph Fenton, a retired journalist who has worked as an editor for a number of Florida newspapers. He died of lung cancer at 67 on June 19, after he and his wife, South Florida Sun Sentinel reporter Eileen Kelley, spent six weeks begging for tests and medical care that might explain his deteriorating condition. Kelley posted details of the fight on Facebook a day after his death.

They initially told him that acid reflux was causing his harsh cough and sent him home with a few pills. Days later, he had a chest x-ray but no one bothered to read it for a month.  Then a doctor made a phone call to tell him it appeared he’d had pneumonia a month earlier.

Fenton tried telling them he still felt awful and they gave him antibiotics. His wife started researching his symptoms late at night and concluded he might have cancer.

Secretly, while sobbing in a nearby park all alone, she called the doctor again and begged for help as he got worse by the day. Finally, there was another round of x-rays and a call from a doctor saying he needed a CT scan as soon as possible. The doctor questioned how anyone had seen his problem as pneumonia.

There were more doctors and more tests and Fenton and his wife agreed to fight with everything they could muster. Fenton got sicker and sicker.

They admitted him to the hospital but he continued to decline. After 3 1/2 weeks he wanted to go home to see their dogs. She took him home on a stretcher. Four nights later, he was gone.

All of this is happening in the midst of a coronavirus outbreak that is sapping all the energy and most of the medical care out of the nation’s medical institutions.

In the offices of some doctors, they won’t let you in if you are really sick. Well-patient visits only, our doctor told us in Tallahassee.

Fenton and his wife were fierce journalists accustomed to fighting for the underdog and putting people in jail. He changed laws and righted wrongs across a long career that included training young reporters who have gone on to challenge the world.

But getting help from an overwhelmed medical establishment was more than they could do.

And so it goes across Florida and other states where the virus has killed more than 130,000 Americans. Lately, in Florida we’ve seen some 9,000 new cases a day of the wretched virus, eating up all the medical care available in many areas. People wait in long lines in the summer heat to get tested for the virus. In Tallahassee, some have waited more than 8 hours for a test.

A friend who had surgery in Clearwater recently told me she was moved from one room to another three times — sometimes in the middle of the night — as the hospital tried to juggle arriving virus patients who needed to be quarantined.

My doctor in Tallahassee referred me to a specialist last spring, but the specialist didn’t even call me back for three months. I can only hope it is nothing serious.

But such is life for ordinary people who DON’T have the virus. I wonder how many people are dying from cancer or some other terminal disease because our hospitals and doctors are overburdened with virus patients, many of whom have gotten sick because they refused to wear masks or stay at home.

We have a president and a governor who have been slow to acknowledge that this is a serious situation.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has been unwilling to require masks statewide, leaving decisions to local governments. He did ban the sale of alcohol in bars, just weeks after allowing them to reopen. Maybe he realizes that was a mistake.

President Trump and many of his followers don’t like masks and have repeatedly encouraged the president’s followers to ignore those who urge people to wear them, although the president finally admitted this week, “I’m all for masks. I think masks are good.”

Vice President Mike Pence did wear one during his trip to Texas Sunday and recommended everyone wear them in appropriate circumstances after months of ducking the question.

Trump has seriously mishandled the federal response to the disease. Lately, he’s also put something of a leash on Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S.Centers for Disease Control and Prevention expert on infectious diseases.

Fauci has been wearing a mask for months and begging everyone else to do the same. Reporters in Washington say the president doesn’t like it when Fauci doesn’t “stay on message,’’ whatever that is.

City by city, state by state, mayors and governors have had to fight the forces of Trump to restrict crowds and order masks worn wherever there are crowds of people. Medical experts say the masks will save thousands of lives — if people wear them and stay away from crowds.

Too bad we can’t get all or our leaders to help spread the word and shut down events where large crowds are expected. Instead, Trump and DeSantis have arranged to bring the Republican National Convention to Jacksonville in August, among other big events.

Wearing a mask is not a political issue. It is clearly a medical issue.

And if we ignore this message, more and more Floridians will die of the virus and lots of other problems that can’t be treated because our doctors and hospitals are way over their heads in sick people.

We can do better than this.

Pulitzer Prize-winner Lucy Morgan was chief of the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times capital bureau in Tallahassee for 20 years, retiring in 2006 and serving as senior correspondent until 2013. She was inducted into the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame and the Florida Newspaper Hall of Fame. The Florida Senate named its press gallery after Morgan, in honor of her two decades covering the Legislature.