Yvonne Francis thought she was helping other Utahns understand the vulnerability of children too young to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by sharing the story of her toddler son lying sedated and intubated in a Primary Children’s Hospital bed for nearly two weeks earlier this year after contracting the virus.
Instead, the pregnant former adjunct communications professor at Utah Valley University was getting hate mail from her Facebook post and interviews that criticized those who skipped the shots and weren’t wearing masks as the omicron variant of the virus was still roaring through the state.
Private messages sent to her Facebook account accused her of “things like I’m a horrible mother for letting a propaganda machine use my child, that I obviously am uneducated and I don’t know what I’m talking about with vaccines, and that I am helping the government take people’s right to choose their health care away from them.”
Some said she made up the story, as if her 3-year-old son Justin Lee never spent a total of 22 days in the hospital in January and February, much of it on a ventilator after his struggle to breathe with lungs weakened by asthma was diagnosed as COVID-19 and other viruses, putting him, doctors warned, “in a bad place.”
Even more troubling, a few responses felt “really violent” to Francis, including one telling her she should be “really thankful your kid caught COVID on his own because you would have (expletive) killed him if you gave him that vaccine when he turned 5. It escalated more than like, ‘Oh, you’re so dumb. You’re a bad mom.’”
The attacks finally stopped, Francis said, but the stress of being targeted day after day in such a personal way helped lead to a medical condition that forced her to deliver her third child more than a month before her due date.
Empathy is lacking
Instances of incivility were already commonplace nationally before the COVID-19 pandemic further “strained the ties that bind us together,” thanks to increasing political divisiveness in Utah and the rest of the country, said Chris Karpowitz, co-director of Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy.
Utah, though, prides itself “as a place where politics is conducted a little differently, that our connections to each other and the way we treat each other is defined by a sense of compassion and of care for each member of society,” principles emphasized by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, its predominant faith, he said.
Yet what happened to Francis is just one example of what the political science professor said has too often been the reaction to the exhausting and stressful public health crisis — angry Utahns lashing out, their “disagreement cranked up to 11” on a scale of 1 to 10, making it extremely tough to find common ground against the virus.
“If we can’t engage with each other in a more productive way, if all we do is scream at each other and insist on our side, then we will have trouble,” Karpowitz said, calling it disheartening for Francis to have people respond with such ferocity to her child’s battle with COVID-19.
It suggests a stunning lack of empathy by some for the victims of the pandemic, he said, evident in an unwillingness to recognize decisions made against getting vaccinated or taking other precautions against spreading the virus, such as masking, affect others.
A Park City doctor has said Utah is facing a pandemic of not just COVID-19, but also personal moral character.
“It’s a disease and a pandemic that could have ended long ago if we could just put the needs of others ahead of our own,” Dr. Wing Province, the medical director of Intermountain Park City Hospital, told reporters in January. An Intermountain Healthcare spokeswoman said Wing wasn’t available to be interviewed for this story.
Karpowitz said “it’s shocking to me when we reach a point where we’re losing thousands of Americans every day, when children are getting sick,” as occurred during the huge surge in cases earlier this year, “and we decide we’re willing to live with that. I would not have expected that.”
Pandemic’s political ‘extremism’
There’s been plenty of political turmoil, too, over the pandemic, and Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton expected to take some hits as one of two Republican votes on the council to uphold a 30-day mask mandate put in place by Dr. Angela Dunn, the head of the county health department, in mid-January.
“At the end of the day, we make decisions that affect people and we have to be able to sleep at night. So I knew that with the decision I was going to make that I was going to bring on the wrath of a lot of people. But in my heart, I knew it was the right thing. I knew we have to do something,” Winder Newton said.
It turned out the councilwoman wasn’t ready for how difficult supporting the mandate would be, even though she’d riled some people for being on the other side of the issue in August 2021, when she voted with the rest of the council’s GOP majority to overturn a similar public health order.
“I knew it was going to be hard. I think I underestimated how hard it was going to be to take a lot of those comments, and anger, and people who, frankly, I thought were my friends who have basically walked away and some who have actively tried to harm my reputation,” Winder Newton said. “That’s been hard.”
State lawmakers voted to end mask mandates in Salt Lake and Summit counties at the start of the 2022 session, after Winder Newton and fellow Republican Salt Lake County Council Chairwoman Laurie Stringham refused to give in to pressure to reverse their position from other members of the GOP, including legislative leaders.
“Here I am, a conservative Republican who’s cut millions from the county budget over the last eight years and has gone to bat for taxpayers in a big way, and I’ve got people from my own party telling me to resign because of one decision. It’s just, it’s an extremism,” Winder Newton said. “It doesn’t make sense.”
The former gubernatorial candidate said she was the subject of profane memes that circulated on social media, was called “terrible words” and told she was a child abuser because K-12 students would have to be masked under the order.
“I had somebody tell me I should probably have security,” Winder Newton said, adding she did not feel physically threatened. However, she did try to protect herself by getting help going through her emails and social media to separate the trolls from constituents whose concerns truly needed to be addressed.
“I know the majority of people aren’t like this. It’s a very, very small minority that’s very loud and very mean and very afraid,” Winder Newton said, calling on all Utahns to help restore “basic human respect and decency” to their interactions with government officials and each other.
That’s not going to happen “until each one of us decides, ‘Yeah, we’re going to step it up. We’re not going to put up with this,’” she said. “We have to get to a place where we’re choosing to treat each other respectfully under all circumstances. ... I’m in the thick of it, and I can attest it can be done.”
What it’s going to take
Karpowitz was less optimistic. He said former President Donald Trump’s embrace of coarse and angry rhetoric played a role in people putting aside “the norms of kindness and civility and caring for each other,” though the political science professor said there’s blame to go around.
The country was already being pulled apart when the pandemic struck, Karpowitz said. He worries that after two years of struggling with the spread of a deadly disease, often in isolation, the connections between Utahns may be too frayed to be repaired.
“The norms of a healthy democracy should be valued. They’re more fragile than we might have assumed. That means it might be harder to strengthen them,” Karpowitz said, adding, “There is a sense that once you’ve crossed these lines, it’s harder to go back.”
It won’t be easy to recover a sense that there are shared goals to work toward together, he said, and it will require both elected officials and the public to commit to healthier, more personal interactions rather demonizing those who disagree with them.
“We might have different ideas about a whole host of things, but there are areas where we can find agreement and we can find creative ways forward,” Karpowitz said. “But if we never talk to each other, if we only scream at each other, it’s really very unlikely that we’re going to be able to identify and pursue that common ground.”
How one doctor reached doubters
Dr. David Grygla, a hospitalist at a St. George hospital, said for him, respect was the key to delivering a message about protecting the community from COVID-19 last summer that some didn’t want to hear despite the deadly impact of the virus.
The family doctor said the skills he uses every day with patients prepared him for speaking out last August on the need for more Utahns to get vaccinated against COVID-19, first on his wife’s Facebook page and later in an interview with the Deseret News.
“My stock and trade is getting along with people and helping people understand complex things,” Grygla said. “So after getting good at that, I can talk about all sorts of hard topics. If I can talk to teenagers about sexual activity and old people about terminal diagnoses and maintain a meaningful relationship, I think that just carries over.”
He said the reaction was largely positive to his Aug. 10 2021 post, which began, “GET VACCINATED. GET VACCINATED. Pick the best vaccine you can figure out and GET VACCINATED” and detailed the suffering of the more than a hundred virus victims he’d treated and the dozens for whom he signed death certificates.
Of course, Grygla hadn’t been on social media for more than a year when he borrowed his wife’s Facebook page to vent after losing a close friend who was unvaccinated to COVID-19. He said he also made a point of avoiding comments made online as his post went viral and became news.
What he focused on were what people were willing to say to him face to face.
“I had probably more than a dozen people, including people I didn’t know, thank me,” Grygla said.
He recalled people coming up to him at a skating rink and in a grocery store and saying, “‘You’re the guy that wrote that article. I’m like, ‘Yeah,’ and they’re like, ‘Thank you so much. I needed to hear that. I got vaccinated and I passed it on to my family and they got vaccinated.’”
Even those who told him they disagreed with him on the need for vaccinations did so respectfully, Grygla said.
“I have a couple of friends that are pretty fringe-y in their point of view. They send me YouTube videos to watch and comment on, and that makes me tired. I always take the time to watch at least part of it and then respond with my point of view,” he said. “They’re always happy to get it. It doesn’t change what they’re doing.”
Respect works both ways, the doctor said.
“The only way to really create good will is to talk to people like they’re reasonable and that they have legitimate concerns. And then approach them. It takes time,” Grygla said adding that having those conversations in person rather than through social media is vital.
“It’s really a manifestation of the times that we live. I think more people can be horrible online and send horrible letters. But if you actually had to sit down at a table and talk to somebody about something you disagreed on, you’d be like, ‘Oh, this is another human being’ and you’d be more likely to be respectful.”
‘You don’t want to be me’
For Francis, the hateful messages started as she was struggling with her own fears that Justin might not recover after being intubated in mid-January after seeing him “just laying in that bed. He doesn’t have his eyes open. He can’t talk to you. That was really rough. He didn’t really seem to be in there in anymore.”
Meanwhile, she and her husband were trying to comfort their younger son, Quintin, who at not quite 2 years old didn’t understand why his big brother had disappeared and, for a while, was convinced Justin was somewhere in their backyard, waiting to be found.
Plus, Francis was scheduled to deliver her third child by C-section in early March.
In late January, though, she’d started “having some really weird symptoms” including trouble breathing, swelling in her hands, feet and joints, and feeling “really, really exhausted,” that she figured was the result of “being so pregnant and having a baby in the hospital.”
When Francis headed to the emergency room, believing her anemia had worsened after missing treatments. It turned out that not only did she need blood transfusions, she had preeclampsia and was told she needed an emergency C-section.
Doctors said they had “to take the baby out so that we would both, both live and not risk losing one of us. So I ended up having my baby on 11:57 p.m. on Jan. 31,” she said. “Justin was still in the hospital. I was in this other hospital, and the baby went straight to the NICU,” Francis said.
They’re all home now and doing much better, she said, although baby Teagan needs to gain weight and Justin Lee continues to undergo physical therapy for muscles weakened by his hospital stay that make it difficult for him to walk in a straight line or swallow food.
Francis takes comfort in the many positive messages and support she also received throughout her family’s ordeal. She said she has no regrets about trying to show Utahns who’ve hesitated to vaccinate themselves and their children over 5 years old against the virus just how serious COVID-19 can be.
“You don’t want to be me, you know, sitting in the hospital, wondering if your baby will come home,” Francis said, her voice choking with sobs. “It would always be better to get the vaccine and hope that if you do end up catching COVID, it’s a much more mild reaction because you took steps to protect yourself or your family.”