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This doctor just endured the deadliest week of his career

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Dr. Joseph Varon, the chief medical officer at Houston’s United Memorial Medical Center, gets home after a long day at work.


Dr. Joseph Varon hasn’t had a day off in months.

Friday was his 134th consecutive day leading the coronavirus unit at Houston’s United Memorial Medical Center.

“If you ask me how the hell have I been able to survive for 134 days nonstop, I guess it’s adrenaline,” he said. “But I’m running on fumes. It’s tough.”

And last week was his toughest yet. With Houston dealing with a surge in Covid-19 cases, he signed more death certificates than he has at any point in his career.

“People were dying every day,” he said.

Nurse Flor Trevino prepares a body to be transported to a morgue. The patient died during an intubation procedure.

Varon wrote this note that detailed a patient’s death on July 17.

Varon’s workday starts early. Around 4:30 or 5 a.m., he heads to the hospital and goes straight to the coronavirus unit where he and his team go over each patient’s case.

Then he starts making the rounds.

“He’s involved with everything and very, very personal,” said photographer Callaghan O’Hare, who shadowed him several times over the past month. “He will sit on the bed with people and give them hugs and have a chat. It’s pretty incredible to watch.”

Caring for the coronavirus patients takes a minimum of 10 hours each day, Varon said. After that, he meets with his other patients in the hospital — the ones who don’t have coronavirus.

“If I am lucky, I get home before 10 o’clock at night. If I’m not lucky, which is most of the time, I make it home around midnight,” he said.

Varon and his team go over patient files during a daily meeting. “I’m afraid that at some point in time I’m going have to make some very serious decisions,” Varon said in July. “I’m starting to get the idea that I cannot save everybody.”

This X-ray shows a patient’s lungs inside the coronavirus unit.

Of course, Varon isn’t the only one making sacrifices. He is quick to praise his team and the long, hard hours they put in.

“The nursing life inside a Covid unit is tough,” he said. “Every time they go in and they wear those spacesuits, they come out sweating like there’s no tomorrow. It’s like a mini sauna for them.”

The work is physically exhausting, with everyone on staff wearing several layers of personal protective equipment, or PPE. Varon has seen nurses slip on their own sweat.

It’s also emotionally draining.

“I have seen nurses, in the middle of rounds, just start crying,” Varon said. “Crying because they just can’t handle it anymore.”

Varon passes a piece of paper to colleague Cesar Barrera as he checks on patients in the emergency room.

Varon talks on the phone while sitting at a table in the staff lounge. His phones — he carries two — are constantly ringing, and he’s often taking media requests and letting journalists get a firsthand look at what it’s like inside his hospital.

O’Hare says she was struck, however, by the resilience of Varon’s staffers and how committed they were to make a difference.

“They really try to take the time to get to know the patients,” she said.

It isn’t easy to connect with someone when your face is covered by a mask and a shield and you’re dressed head to toe in PPE. But Varon’s team has a solution.

“The doctor and then the nurses will all wear printed photographs of themselves over their PPE so the patients can at least know what they look like and have an idea of who they’re talking to,” O’Hare said.

Varon speaks to coronavirus patient Henry Rodriguez on July 10. The staff wears printed photographs of themselves so that they can make a more personal connection.

Efrain Guevara lies on a hospital bed on July 17. He was hospitalized after being diagnosed with Covid-19.

Three nurses on Varon’s staff have contracted Covid-19 in the past few months. Varon doesn’t know where they contracted it, but at the hospital they’re always careful with regards to PPE.

“I often tell people I feel more comfortable inside my unit than outside my unit,” he said.

Nurse Christina Mathers tested positive last week.

“That’s the hardest thing to ever hear. … It messes with you,” said Mathers, who had been working every other day since April 29. “But I wouldn’t go anywhere else but here.”

Varon hugs Christina Mathers, a nurse from his team who became infected with Covid-19.

A worker places a sign reading “cleaned vent” onto a piece of medical equipment.

Houston is the county seat of Harris County, which as of Friday was fifth in the United States for most confirmed cases of Covid-19.

“I’ve heard quite an increase in ambulances, just at all hours of the day,” said O’Hare, who lives in Houston. “And I’ve done quite a bit of coverage standing in the parking lot of the Texas Medical Center and seeing the number of ambulances going in and out at testing facilities.“

She says she’s seen people show up at 11:30 the night before just to be sure they have a spot in line and can get tested the next day.

“It’s pretty chaotic,” she said.

A man delivers balloons to the room of a coronavirus patient who was missing his daughter’s birthday.

A medical student checks on Larissa Raudales, an 18-year-old who was hospitalized after being diagnosed with coronavirus. “I was terrified. … I thought I couldn’t breathe anymore,” Raudales said. “I just thought I was going to practically die right there.”

The first two times O’Hare visited Varon’s hospital, the coronavirus unit was at maximum capacity. The US Army came later to help expand the area and add more beds.

Some of the people O’Hare saw during those earlier visits didn’t survive. It was tough to think about.

“One of the hardest things to watch was after a man died, they put his belongings in a plastic bag next to him — just basketball shorts, a T-shirt, shoes,” she said. “And it really struck me that this man died without his family and friends being there to say goodbye.

“No one deserves anything like that, and we all have a part to play in making sure that that doesn’t happen to more people in Texas.”

Jonnie Harrison sleeps in a bed next to her husband, Riley, on July 25. Both of them were hospitalized in the coronavirus unit.

Health-care workers take a break from treating coronavirus patients.

Varon has been outspoken about the Covid-19 threat and the importance of wearing masks. That hasn’t sat well with everyone.

“People are calling my office and leaving threats because of all the media I’ve been doing, because they don’t believe that what we’re doing is real,” he said.

Varon wants people to see: This is not a hoax. This is a real thing. People are dying.

“You have no idea my frustration when I leave the hospital, I’m heading home, and then in one of these outdoor malls I see a hundred cars, a bunch of young guys or young women having a party — no face masks, no nothing. That kills me,” he said. “People are not listening.”

A medical-school student takes a nap in a break room. The team has been working around the clock this past month to deal with a surge of Covid-19 cases.

Callaghan O’Hare is a photographer based in Houston. Follow her on Instagram.

Photo editor: Brett Roegiers

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Trump Withdraws Controversial Nomination Of Anthony Tata To Pentagon

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WASHINGTON, Aug 3 (Reuters) – President Donald Trump has withdrawn the nomination of Anthony Tata, a retired Army brigadier general who has called former President Barack Obama a “terrorist leader,” to be undersecretary of defense for policy, the White House said on Monday.

The White House statement came a day after a Pentagon spokeswoman said Tata, who failed to secure a Senate confirmation hearing, had taken a different, less-senior policy role at the Defense Department.

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2020 election: Trump continues to lose ground as nation grapples with coronavirus

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Given the continuing widespread coronavirus pandemic, the persistent economic devastation millions of Americans are experiencing in its wake and President Donald Trump’s inability to wrest control of the crisis in the minds of a majority of Americans, it is probably not all that surprising that his reelection chances have taken a substantial hit.

From launching a law-and-order message in the face of mostly peaceful protests for racial justice, to Trump shaking up the campaign by demoting his campaign manager, to a short-lived attempt at having the President portray himself as a leader in command of the Covid-19 response, the race for the White House has continued to move in Biden’s direction.

While the cliché is true that the three months from now until Election Day is an eternity in American politics and the race is almost certain to tighten, it is also true that Americans are just six weeks away from beginning to cast ballots and the defining characteristic of this presidential race thus far is Trump’s failed leadership in managing the coronavirus pandemic and an inability to convince enough of the public that Biden is an unacceptable alternative.

Whatever thin cushion existed for Trump’s reelection prospects at the start of this election year has completely evaporated. The President’s path to 270 electoral votes is as narrow as it has ever been. For his part, former Vice President Biden is shoring up some traditionally blue-leaning battleground states, expanding the 2020 battleground map into what has recently been more Republican leaning terrain, and opening up multiple pathways to victory.

Based on public and private polling, where the campaigns are placing their strategic bets with millions of advertising dollars, where the candidates and their surrogates are spending time in person or virtually, conversations with Trump and Biden campaign advisers, Republican and Democratic political operatives, members of Congress, and political professionals involved with outside groups, our current Electoral College outlook reflects that substantial movement in Biden’s direction.

Since our last outlook, we have moved five states (and one congressional district) in the direction of the Democrat. Michigan and Pennsylvania, two states Trump won in 2016 that had been reliably blue for the better part of two decades in presidential elections, are being moved from battleground to lean Democrat, placing an additional 36 electoral votes to Biden’s total. We’ve also moved Virginia from lean Democrat to solid Democrat as the demographics and population shifts in the commonwealth continue to trend away from Republicans and both campaigns appear to be disinclined to spend substantial dollars competing there.

In addition, Georgia, Ohio and Maine’s 2nd Congressional District had all been leaning in Trump’s favor in our last outlook and have now all been moved to the battleground category, which reduces Trump’s electoral vote count by 35 votes.

In this new outlook, Trump starts with a solid base of 125 electoral votes from 20 states that are most likely to be uncontested in the fall. When you combine that base of solid states with the additional 45 electoral votes that are currently leaning in his direction, it brings Trump’s total to 170 electoral votes — 100 votes away from reelection.

Biden’s quest for the White House starts with a solid base of 203 electoral votes from 16 states and the District of Columbia. When you add in the 65 electoral votes that are leaning in his direction, it brings his total to 268 electoral votes — just 2 away from winning the presidency.

That leaves us with six states and a congressional district worth a total of 100 electoral votes that will likely prove decisive in selecting the direction the country heads in for the next four years: Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin.

If Biden were to win everything in dark or light blue on this map, Donald Trump would need to run the table and win every single battleground to get reelected.

Solid Republican:

Alabama (9), Alaska (3), Arkansas (6), Idaho (4), Indiana (11), Kansas (6), Kentucky (8), Louisiana (8), Mississippi (6), Missouri (10), Montana (3), Nebraska (4), North Dakota (3), Oklahoma (7), South Carolina (9), South Dakota (3), Tennessee (11), Utah (6), West Virginia (5), Wyoming (3) (125 total)

Leans Republican:

Iowa (6), Nebraska 2nd Congressional District (1), Texas (38) (45 total)

Battleground states:

Arizona (11), Florida (29), Georgia (16), Maine 2nd Congressional District (1), North Carolina (15), Ohio (18), Wisconsin (10) (100 total)

Leans Democratic:

Colorado (9), Michigan (16), Minnesota (10), New Hampshire (4), Nevada (6), Pennsylvania (20) (65 total)

Solid Democratic:

California (55), Connecticut (7), Delaware (3), DC (3), Hawaii (4), Illinois (20), Maine (3), Maryland (10), Massachusetts (11), New Jersey (14), New Mexico (5), New York (29), Oregon (7), Rhode Island (4), Vermont (3), Virginia (13), Washington (12) (203 total)

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Maryland Gov. Hogan overrules county mandate for private schools to go virtual

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Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan on Monday revoked the authority of county officials to mandate schools close amid a clash with local health officials.

Local health officials in Maryland’s Montgomery County last week made the decision to keep private and parochial schools closed through October for in-person learning, arguing that having students in the classroom would present a danger to pupils and teachers as the state grapples with COVID-19.

But Hogan amended an emergency executive order, which he issued April 5, that allowed local health departments to have the authority to close any individual facility deemed to be unsafe. He called the Montgomery County mandate “overly broad.”

“The recovery plan for Maryland public schools stresses local flexibility within the parameters set by state officials,” Hogan said in a statement. “Over the last several weeks, school boards and superintendents made their own decisions about how and when to reopen public schools, after consultation with state and local health officials.”

HOGAN CLASHES WITH OFFICIALS OVER MANDATE FOR PRIVATE SCHOOLS TO GO VIRTUAL

Hogan added that “private and parochial schools deserve the same opportunity and flexibility to make reopening decisions based on public health guidelines.”

“The blanket closure mandate imposed by Montgomery County was overly broad and inconsistent with the powers intended to be delegated to the county health officer,” Hogan said, adding that the state’s recovery “continues to be based on flexible, community-based approach that follows science, not politics.”

“As long as schools develop safe and detailed plans that follow CDC and state guidelines, they should be empowered to do what’s best for their community,” he said, thanking parents, students and school administrators “who have spoken out in recent days about this important issue.”

TENNESSEE MAN, 27, RECOVERING AFTER CORONAVIRUS PNEUMONIA: ‘IT WAS PRETTY SCARY’

Hogan’s move Monday came after Montgomery County Health Officer Travis Gayles in a statement Friday said that opening those schools in any capacity would be unsafe, and as private and parochial schools had signaled their wishes to open for in-person learning, citing their classes, which are smaller in size than public schools, could make them more flexible to follow social distancing guidelines.

Montgomery County Public Schools, as well as most other public school districts across the state, have announced their decision to offer virtual-only instruction this fall.

“At this point the data does not suggest that in-person instruction is safe for students or teachers,” Gayles said Friday, according to The Baltimore Sun. “We have seen increases in transmission rates for COVID-19 in the State of Maryland, the District of Columbia and the Commonwealth of Virginia, particularly in younger age groups, and this step is necessary to protect the health and safety of Montgomery County residents.”

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