Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., could not stop thinking about whether Donald Reed Herring, the eldest of her three brothers, was cold and afraid after he was diagnosed with the novel coronavirus in early April.
“I kept thinking about whether he was cold,” Warren said in an interview excerpt published in the Atlantic on Sunday. “There’s no one there to talk to him while he waits for the doctor. There’s no one there to be with him while he receives the news.”
In the interview with the Atlantic’s Edward-Isaac Dovere, Warren reflected on the final days of Herring, who had been hospitalized with pneumonia in February and was close to recovery until someone at his facility in Oklahoma tested positive for the virus.
“Then he got sick, and then he died, by himself,” she said of Herring, who died of COVID-19 on April 21 at the age of 86. “That’s the hard part – really hard part.”
She added, “It just feels like something that didn’t have to happen.”
Warren grieving the loss of her brother from a distance has become both familiar and identifiable in a pandemic with nearly 1.5 million confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States and at least 88,000 deaths. In recent weeks, Warren has joined President Trump, former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., as top political figures with family members or friends who’ve been directly affected by the pandemic.
While it’s unclear how Herring contracted the coronavirus, The Washington Post’s Annie Linskey and Felicia Sonmez reported that he had been in a rehabilitation center where several other people had active cases of the virus.
Warren, who would often tell anecdotes of Herring’s military service during her presidential campaign, recounted how her brother was ready to leave the rehab facility when he was told he was not allowed to exit after learning someone had tested positive for the virus.
“I called him every day for 11 days, and every day he would say, ‘I’m just fine,’ ” she said to the Atlantic. “In fact, he said, ‘I think I probably had it before and I’m just too tough and didn’t even notice.’ ”
But when his own coronavirus test came back positive, Warren said it felt like she couldn’t breathe.
“And he said, ‘Bets’ – he’d call me Bets or Betsy always – ‘I feel fine. I feel fine,’ ” she said. She added, “He’d tell me, ‘Oh, it’s fine,’ and laugh. And he was irritated that he couldn’t leave. And I had begun to think, This is okay. We’re going to get him out of there.”
That’s when his condition took a turn. After he didn’t answer his phone, Warren found out that Herring was in intensive care. She said she spoke to him once again on the phone. His speech was slurred and he was confined to a bed but remained optimistic. He passed away shortly thereafter.
Since her brother’s death, Warren has underscored the urgency for the country to prepare for a second potential wave of the virus in the fall. During last week’s Senate hearing, Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, agreed with Warren’s assessment, saying “there would be problems” in regard to another outbreak later this year if testing and contact tracing doesn’t improve and if social distancing doesn’t continue.
On Sunday, Warren acknowledged to the Atlantic that the feelings she and tens of thousands of American families who’ve lost loved ones to the coronavirus share was “something none of us were prepared for.”
“It’s always hard to lose someone you love,” she said. “But to lose someone when you have to wonder: What were their last days like? Were they afraid? Were they cold? Were they lonely? That is a kind of grief that is new to all of us.”