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Coronavirus Feels Doubly Dangerous In A Town Haunted By Asbestos : Shots

Frank Fahland, 61, is one of hundreds of Libby, Mont., residents who has an asbestos-related disease. That makes them potentially more vulnerable to complications from COVID-19.

Nate Hegyi / Mountain West News Bureau


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Nate Hegyi / Mountain West News Bureau

Frank Fahland, 61, is one of hundreds of Libby, Mont., residents who has an asbestos-related disease. That makes them potentially more vulnerable to complications from COVID-19.

Nate Hegyi / Mountain West News Bureau

LIBBY, Mont. — Frank Fahland has spent most days since the pandemic began at the site of his dream house, working to finish a 15-year labor of love while keeping away from town and the people closest to him.

Like thousands of people from Libby and Lincoln County, in the far northwestern corner of Montana, the 61-year-old Fahland has lungs already scarred by years of breathing in the asbestos fibers that have contaminated the area’s dust and soil. The asbestos is a legacy of a now-defunct plant in the area that made vermiculite, a mineral used in insulation and gardening.

Fahland recently gave a visitor a tour of his partially finished log home, overlooking a meadow that stretches to the foothills of the Cabinet Mountains. He struggled to climb a small hill and stopped to reach for his inhaler.

“It feels like someone is standing on your chest,he explains, “or almost like someone stuffed a pillow down there in your lung.”

Fahland’s condition makes him more vulnerable to complications from COVID-19, so he’s keeping his distance from people, in hopes of avoiding infection. He has kept his distance from his son and granddaughter for months and he recently wrote his will.

“If it hadn’t been for COVID my will would not be written. But it is now,” Fahland says. “It’s filed in the courthouse and the whole goddamn thing is done. That gives you some idea of how seriously I take this.”

He’s not alone in taking such precautions against the virus. Lincoln County has one of the nation’s highest asbestos mortality rates. At least 400 people have died from asbestos-related diseases, which can include asbestosis, mesothelioma and lung cancer. At least 1 in 10 people in Libby have an asbestos-related illness, according to Miles Miller, a physician assistant at the Center for Asbestos Related Disease.

“Our patients having an underlying lung disease would make recovery from COVID-19 more difficult,” Miller says.

Lincoln County, population 20,000, largely was spared from outbreaks of the novel coronavirus at the beginning, which Miller chalked up to the community’s vigilance in testing, tracking and prevention efforts.

But by the fall, cases began to climb in the county along with the rest of Montana. By early October, the number of confirmed cases in Lincoln County was 170, nearly double the count at the end of August. County health officials said in a Facebook post that cases were all over the county and “it would be irresponsible to classify any towns as safe.”

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Trump says he feels ‘great’ and will be at the next presidential debate.

President Trump announced his plans on Tuesday to go on with the next presidential debate in Miami, against former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. The debate, set for Oct. 15 in Miami, would be two weeks after Mr. Trump tested positive for the notoriously unpredictable coronavirus.

According to guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Mr. Trump could still be contagious on Oct. 15, depending on how severe his case has been and exactly when his symptoms began.

People with mild to moderate cases, the agency says, probably are not infectious once 10 days have elapsed since symptom onset. But the timeline expands to about 20 days in more severe cases — and Mr. Trump might meet the criteria for being classified as a severe case, based on the treatments he received at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

Eager to get back on the campaign trail, Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter that he was “FEELING GREAT!” on Tuesday, and the doctor overseeing his care, Sean P. Conley, said in a written update made public by the White House that the president “continues to do extremely well,” adding, “Today he reports no symptoms.”

Dr. Conley said the president’s oxygen saturation level was normal on Tuesday, in the 95 to 97 percent range. At one point earlier in his illness, however, it fell to 93 percent. Many medical experts consider Covid-19 patients to have severe cases if their oxygen levels drop below 94 percent.

Before Mr. Trump left the hospital on Monday evening, he issued a message telling people not to be afraid of Covid-19 and saying, “Don’t let it dominate your life.” His comments drew outrage from scientists, ethicists, doctors and friends and relatives of the deceased, who had hoped the president’s own experience with the disease would lead him to take it more seriously.

On Tuesday, Mr. Trump again compared Covid-19 to the flu on social media, a reprise of earlier false claims that the illnesses were comparable in lethality; experts say seasonal influenza is much less deadly than coronavirus.

“We are learning to live with Covid, in most populations far less lethal!!!” he tweeted.

Facebook later took down Mr. Trump’s post about the flu, saying in a statement that “we remove incorrect information about the severity of Covid-19, and have now removed this post.”

The post received nearly 570,000 likes and comments and was shared nearly 50,000 times before it was taken down.

Mr. Trump posted the same false claim that the flu was responsible for more deaths than the coronavirus on Twitter. On Tuesday morning Twitter added a label to the tweet that hides the message, saying that the tweet violated its policies by spreading misleading information about Covid-19.

Twitter did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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Trump says he feels better, but his chief of staff says he is ‘still not on a clear path to a full recovery.’

Mr. Meadows called into Fox News on Saturday night, knowing the president was most likely watching, and praised his “unbelievable courage” and “unbelievable improvement.” But he also confirmed that Mr. Trump’s condition on Friday was worse than originally described. “Yesterday morning we were real concerned with that,” Mr. Meadows said. “He had a fever and his blood oxygen level had dropped rapidly.”

The mixed messages only exacerbated the confusion and uncertainties surrounding the president’s situation. During their briefing on Saturday, the doctors refused to provide important details and gave timelines that conflicted with earlier White House accounts and left the impression that the president was sick and began treatment earlier than officially reported.

Two people close to the White House said in separate interviews with The New York Times that the president had trouble breathing on Friday and that his oxygen level dropped, prompting his doctors to give him supplemental oxygen while at the White House and transfer him to Walter Reed where he could be monitored with better equipment and treated more rapidly in case of trouble.

During the televised briefing, Dr. Conley said the president was not currently receiving supplemental oxygen on Saturday but repeatedly declined to say definitively whether he had ever been on oxygen. “None at this moment and yesterday with the team, while we were all here, he was not on oxygen,” he said, seeming to suggest that there was a period on Friday at the White House when he was.

Dr. Conley likewise appeared to indicate that the president was first diagnosed with the virus on Wednesday rather than Thursday night, before Mr. Trump disclosed the test on Twitter early Friday morning. While describing what he said was the president’s progress, he said Mr. Trump was “just 72 hours into the diagnosis now,” which would mean midday on Wednesday.

Just two hours later, the White House issued a statement it said was written by Dr. Conley trying to clarify. “This morning while summarizing the president’s health, I incorrectly used the term ‘72 hours’ instead of ‘Day 3,’” it said.

Dr. Conley also said that on Thursday afternoon “we repeated testing and, given clinical indications, had a little bit more concern.” Late that night, he said, “we got the P.C.R. confirmation that he was” positive. Mr. Trump attended campaign events on both Wednesday night and Thursday without wearing a mask and gathering hundreds of supporters who likewise were not taking precautions against the virus.

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