Nurses who traveled from across the country to work in New York City hospitals saw the horrors of the coronavirus up close. They rushed patients to overcrowded intensive care units, monitored oxygen levels and held the hands of the sickest ones as they slipped away.
But now that many of the nurses have returned home to states in the South and the West, they’re facing a new challenge: persuading friends and family to take the virus seriously.
“A few times I’ve lost my temper,” said Olumide Peter Kolade, a 31-year-old nurse from California who grew up in Texas and spent more than three months treating patients in New York. “When someone tells me that they don’t believe the virus is real, it’s an insult. I take it personally.”
On the way to his 12-hour shifts in Brooklyn, Mr. Kolade would scroll through Instagram and Snapchat and see photos taken the previous night of his friends partying in Texas. A few, adamant that the coronavirus was a hoax or that deaths in New York were overstated, texted him videos promoting the false internet conspiracy theory that links the spread of the virus to the ultrafast wireless technology known as 5G.
“I don’t know, if I wasn’t a nurse, I would’ve totally believed the videos,” he said. “They made it seem like it was true.”
For nurses, the widespread skepticism about something they have witnessed is jarring. The United States has hit daily case records three times in the first six days of July, as the politicization of public health measures and the spread of misinformation hinder the country’s ability to curb the coronavirus’s spread.
Tamara Williams, a nurse from Dallas who came to New York, said she had to remove 50 to 100 friends from her Facebook account because she could not stand seeing their posts with false information about the pandemic.
Several times since returning from New York, Ms. Williams has run into acquaintances who have told her that they believe the coronavirus is no more than the flu — even though coronavirus cases in Texas have surged since mid-June. “It’s infuriating,” she said. Sometimes she pushes back, telling stories about the young patients she treated who had no underlying health conditions.
Other times, she tunes people out.
“There’s no other way,” Ms. Williams, 40, said. “I literally feel like I would lose my mind — it would eat me alive — if I sat there and got into a verbal, back-and-forth banter.”
For months in New York City, streets were deserted and ambulance sirens blared at all hours, a constant reminder of the coronavirus threat. But in cities that have not completely shut down, people can more easily ignore the risk.
“Unless you’ve seen it with your own eyes,” Ms. Williams said, “it is very easy to believe it is not that bad.” On Monday, more than 8,800 new cases were announced across Texas, marking the largest single-day total of the pandemic.
Research on coronavirus information campaigns is limited, but studies on the effectiveness of messaging to discourage the use of tobacco and alcohol show that young adults tend to discount the dangers, said Deena Kemp, an assistant professor and health researcher at the University of Texas at Austin.
“There’s a lack of direct experience,” Dr. Kemp said. “Telling me about something that happened to you in a situation that I can’t identify with is different than telling me something about a situation I can identify with. New York is states away, and unless you work in a hospital, that’s also removed from your experience.”
The patchwork of conflicting local and national guidelines on wearing masks has also led to skepticism about them, she added.
Virginia Bernal, a 45-year-old nurse who spent months working in New York, could tell from her conversations over the phone with relatives back in Phoenix that they were not taking the surge in cases there seriously. She said she had tried to discourage her mother from attending a graduation party for a friend’s daughter. But a few days later, when Ms. Bernal called, her mother did not answer her phone because she was at the party.
“I’ve done my part, so if you choose to go, that’s on you,” Ms. Bernal said she told her mother.
Heather Smith, a nurse from Topsail Island, off the coast of North Carolina, who worked at Elmhurst Hospital Center in Queens, struggled to hold back tears when describing how she felt when her brother said he did not believe the virus was real. When Ms. Smith started typing a rant on Facebook, she said, “I realized how angry I was.” She said she could not get out of her mind the images of patients who died alone: “No one understands how serious and how traumatizing it is.”
Courtney Sudduth, a nurse from Oklahoma City, said that when she arrived in New York people from back home wanted to know: Was it really as bad as the news media made it sound? Yes, she would tell them, describing the 18-wheel refrigerated truck that was parked outside Mount Sinai Beth Israel hospital in Manhattan and used to store bodies.
Even that was not enough. Her grandmother in Mississippi still does not wear a mask when she goes grocery shopping, she said. “Oh, I’ll be fine,” Ms. Sudduth recalled her grandmother as saying.
One of Ms. Sudduth’s brothers, who lives in Mississippi, believed conspiracy theories about the virus and continued to socialize at cookouts — until last month, she said, when he came down with the virus.
“That changed his mind,” Ms. Sudduth, 30, said.
Even as the number of coronavirus cases in Oklahoma has skyrocketed in recent weeks, people around town still stare at her when she wears a mask. “A lot of people still have the mentality that this is being blown out of proportion,” she said.
A hospital in Oklahoma City opened a new unit last week to accommodate the increasing number of virus patients. Sunday was Ms. Sudduth’s first day on the job.