He was prohibited from wearing a mask and died of covid: this is how the pandemic began in the US

Miami (AFP)

Today, when the United States is about to overcome the sinister milestone of half a million deaths from covid-19, it seems inconceivable that a company would prohibit its workers from wearing masks.

However, this happened less than a year ago in one of the largest supermarket chains in Florida, when the coronavirus was spreading around the world and terror was beginning to set in.

At that time, Gerardo Gutiérrez, 70, worked in a Publix supermarket branch in Miami Beach.

He died at the end of April after catching the coronavirus in March, that horrendous month in which the pandemic was declared, in which Italy entered a national confinement that caused stupor in the West and in which the deceased in the United States still numbered in the hundreds.

“We were all in a panic by now,” recalls his daughter Ariane, the plaintiff in a civil case against Publix for wrongful death.

There he alleges that a colleague who worked very close to Gutiérrez was coughing and had other symptoms of the virus, but Publix then prohibited its employees from wearing masks, because “they did not want to scare customers.”

“The result was that my father passed away,” the daughter told AFP at her home in Miami Beach. “She had gone to work every day without any kind of mask or gloves, and they didn’t allow her to wear them.”

On March 23, Miami Beach was the first city in Florida to order lockdown and close its beaches.

But Publix waited until the first week of April to allow its employees to voluntarily wear masks, according to the lawsuit.

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The policy change came late for Gutiérrez, who was already very ill. He was hospitalized on April 10 and, on April 28, his friends and family were firing him for Zoom. He died that day.

“He loved swimming. He was very active, very vital. He could have lived many more years,” says Ariane, showing photographs of the father, who was Cuban.

Two weeks ago, a judge rejected a request by the supermarket chain to treat the complaint as a workers’ compensation claim and not as a lawsuit. The company did not respond to AFP’s request for comment.

– “We keep paying” –

In early March, Miami Beach was still in the middle of its most touristy season. It’s the time when students across the country take spring break and celebrate their youth on Florida beaches like there’s no tomorrow.

Much was said then about the inopportune party atmosphere of this island off Miami, when much of the country was adopting social distancing rules for the first time – a term unknown until then.

“People were slow to pay attention,” remembers Ariane Gutiérrez. “And we still haven’t gotten over this.”

That month businesses closed, the shelves were emptied, and the shortage of masks became dangerous. For this reason, health authorities initially did not recommend its use to the general public, to ensure that medical personnel had sufficient stocks.

“That message at the beginning of the pandemic was a great strategic public health mistake,” Purnima Madhivanan, an epidemiologist at the University of Arizona, told AFP.

In addition, in a way disconcerting to health workers and scientists, the mask became a political statement because Donald Trump, who was president, refused to wear it for months. Sometimes he even teased those who did.

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“Those mixed messages confuse people,” says the epidemiologist. “And we continue to pay for it. Masks are essential.”

– Living with covid –

One of the lessons from these episodes, according to the expert, is that, “as much as we want to say that science prevails, science is only as good as the messengers that communicate it.”

A January study from the University of Southern California found that a large majority (between 80 and 90%) of Americans believe that wearing masks is an effective way to protect against COVID-19, but only half of them use them. consistently.

This shows that “knowledge does not necessarily turn into behavior,” laments Madhivanan.

Initially it was believed that hot weather killed the virus, that shopping bags had to be disinfected, that race was a factor – it turns out that inequality was the factor – and many, like Gutiérrez, suffered from the damage of the disinformation.

Some things have changed (who continues to disinfect tomato cans?), But others, such as the use of masks, should be as “normalized” in the West as they are in Asian countries, warns the epidemiologist.

“We are going to have to live with the covid,” he says. “There will never be a time when we can say that the covid will be gone. We just have to learn to manage it, like the flu.”

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