WASHINGTON — Since the coronavirus outbreak, Lois Frankel has spent every day in her West Palm Beach apartment, but she is probably busier than ever.
The 71-year-old Democratic congresswoman from Florida goes from Zoom call to phone call, again and again. “It’s been intense,” she told The Times of Israel. “You know, you think, ‘Well, you’re going to work from home, maybe you’ll get a break.'”
There are always new emergencies to address, new issues to deal with. And each day, she says, she increasingly hears her constituents’ medical horror stories.
On April 14, for instance, she received an email from a woman in her South Florida district, which includes West Palm Beach and parts of Boca Raton, who wrote that she recently took her 93-year-old mother to the hospital after she fell ill with COVID-19 symptoms.
It took the hospital nine days to get the test results back, the constituent wrote. In the meantime, her mother caught pneumonia, and her body weakened.
Remarkably, the COVID-19 test was negative, but only half an hour after receiving the encouraging result, the nonegenarian had died of internal bleeding. According to her daughter, the doctors told her they were unable to diagnose the true problem early enough because the testing for other illnesses was delayed while the medical system struggled to process mounting coronavirus tests.
Worse yet, because of the fear that her mother was ill with COVID-19, she was isolated and her daughter could not be with her. “There was no way I could advocate for her,” she wrote Frankel. “In nine days, only one doctor returned a call. My mom died alone.”
Emails like these have become the norm for Frankel, whose own 94-year-old mother is in isolation. In a time of crisis from which no one is exempt, the congresswoman spends her days trying to ensure that hospitals and health care providers in her district have enough tests, ventilators, and personal protective equipment to meet the surge of patients battling the virus.
Earlier on Tuesday, she held video conferences with Florida’s congressional delegation and the Hospital and Nursing Association, assessing the needs of Florida’s medical system. Like most of the rest of the country, she said, the her state does not have enough supplies.
“We’ve heard from the people on the ground, from the nurses and the doctors, and they do not have protective equipment,” said Frankel, whose district has a large Jewish population. “They don’t have the masks and the gowns that they need.”
Many of the states are now competing with each other to secure those supplies from manufacturers, in what has become a bidding war that has increased the price of life-saving medical equipment. “We are fighting here locally in competition with every county and with every state,” Frankel said. “It’s like every man and woman for themselves.”
The problem didn’t have to be this bad, she stressed, had US President Donald Trump taken the virus seriously when he was warned about its emergence by the CIA in January. (Trump’s Mar a Lago resort is in Frankel’s district.)
“We needed the president to take charge to order the production of all this equipment, to make sure there was an appropriate dissemination of it,” she said. “The federal leadership just failed. So the states are left scrambling.”
Trying to help the now unemployed
The coronavirus pandemic is more than a public health crisis: It has spiraled into a dire economic emergency. More than 16 million Americans have filed for unemployment since mid-March, when states began issuing stay-at-home orders — crashing most businesses to a sudden halt.
She has written four letters to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, asking him to use his emergency powers to implement broad reforms: to facilitate the application process for unemployment benefits; to allow residents a longer eligibility period for benefits (Florida is one of only seven states that don’t grant their residents 26 weeks of unemployment, but rather 12); and to increase the weekly assistance amount the program provides, which was capped decades ago at $275.
Because of Florida’s stinginess, most people are not going to be able to fully pay their bills
“Florida’s benefits are about the worst in the country,” Frankel said. “Because of Florida’s stinginess, most people are not going to be able to fully pay their bills.”
Frankel has not been shy to criticize DeSantis, who took weeks to accede to calls to order a shelter-in-place throughout the state. He also refused to close the beaches when thousands of spring breakers flocked to Florida’s coast in March.
“I was critical because I thought he did delay the stay-at-home order,” she said. “He could have done that sooner. If you look at Florida with the crowded beaches — we probably sent the virus to a lot of other states. The governor complains about New York, Louisiana, and New Jersey. People should be complaining about Florida. You look at what was going on at those beaches.”
Frankel stressed that the administration in Tallahassee can’t expect any outside help to save Florida from the economic disaster brought upon by the virus.
“It’s not like a hurricane,” she said. “If the hurricane hits Florida, you get help from Georgia. When the hurricane hits Miami-Dade County, you get help from Palm Beach County. No. Everybody’s getting hit at once.”
A new normal
While Frankel lauded the $2.2 trillion coronavirus emergency aid package Congress passed to resuscitate the economy, she said that Florida, or any other state, cannot rely on the White House to help to get the necessary financial relief.
“Trump knows that we’re so behind the curve on getting all this equipment that he doesn’t want to get the blame,” she said. “So the way he thinks he doesn’t get the blame is to say, ‘It’s not my responsibility. It’s the states’ responsibility.’ It’s a totally asinine approach.”
That said, members of Congress are currently trying to strike a deal on a second stimulus bill. Frankel emphasized the need to ramp up testing capacity to allow some sectors of the economy to reopen until a vaccine is developed. (The nation’s top epidemiologist, Anthony Fauci, has said that a vaccine will take 12-18 months.)
“What we need, drastically, is to be able to test and do surveillance,” Frankel said. “Right now, we’re not even testing one percent of the population. We have to find a way to safely get people back to work once we’ve hit our peak.”
“Keep in mind,” she added, “the only reason cases are coming down in some places is because people are socially distancing. If people go back to their usual regimen, the crisis will start to get worse.”
In the meantime, Frankel has found herself acclimating to her new, confined normal. “I wear a mask in my building in the elevators,” she said, “but I pretty much set myself up to just be here.” Once a day, she’ll go for a walk.
Wistfully, she acknowledges that this is just the way things will be for awhile.
“We are not going back to normal any time soon, not until there is a vaccine and there are the therapies,” Frankel said. “Unless a miracle happens.”