Jenny Graham won a second term in the State House of Representatives last week, but there was hardly a celebration.
As ballots were being counted, Graham was isolated from her family in her room, in the throes of COVID-19 and pneumonia.
Graham, whose 6th Legislative District includes parts of the city of Spokane and areas to the west, had intense symptoms. When reached by The Spokesman-Review last Wednesday for comment on the election results, she was coughing and too ill for an interview.
Now recovering at home after a litany of treatments, the representative said she continues to take the coronavirus seriously – and always has – but won’t call for a tightening of restrictions to combat the record-high number of COVID-19 cases in Washington state.
In a wide-ranging interview, Graham spoke with The Spokesman-Review on Tuesday about her experience undergoing treatment for COVID-19 and how it has impacted her outlook as a state legislator and local leader.
She won a second term in office last week over Democratic opponent Tom McGarry, who made criticism of Graham’s response to the COVID-19 crisis and a pledge to “follow the science” the centerpiece of his campaign.
“I go to bed with people on my mind, and knowing there’s been deaths and knowing that when people get sick it affects their life … this virus is sneaky, it’s not going to go away. It’s here. That is an absolute fact,” Graham said.
After her diagnosis, Graham was initially treated with azithromycin, a commonly prescribed antibiotic, and oseltamivir, an antiviral drug.
Her illness worsened and she went to the hospital, where she pushed for additional treatment. She was not admitted, but was given doxycycline and methylprednisolone, one of several steroids believed to be effective in patients with severe cases of COVID-19.
“Had I not have pushed it, it’s possible that I could have been much sicker,” Graham said.
Now, she’s on the upswing.
“I believe that I’m past the COVID part of it, but definitely still dealing with pneumonia,” Graham said. “It’s not fun, no matter what your age is, but (I’m) doing definitely better.”
One lesson Graham took away from her experience was the need for intense intervention early in a patient’s experience with the disease. She also implored people to “increase our own immune systems to be healthy.”
“You can’t stop all death,” Graham said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s heart disease or if it’s the flu or if it’s diabetes – we can’t stop it 100%, but what can we do that might be able to mitigate it so that maybe people don’t get as extreme, maybe they don’t get to the point of pneumonia?”
But after having a serious case of COVID-19, Graham will not endorse tighter restrictions and measures to slow the spread of the disease, arguing that “shutting things down is absolutely not in the best interest” of the state.
Instead, she said efforts should be focused on having “options if somebody gets sick.”
“Can we treat them sooner before they get so horribly sick?” Graham asked.
Graham argued that the state cannot have “tunnel vision” when it comes to COVID-19, and “we also have to compare the other numbers alongside it,” such as suicide, she said.
Experts fear the pandemic’s impact on mental health is and will be severe, particularly this fall and winter, but there is no evidence the number of suicides is outpacing COVID-19 deaths. Suicide is already a top-ten cause of death in Washington state, even deadlier than influenza in most recent years.
In 2018, 930 Washington residents died from influenza or pneumonia. That same year, 1,254 Washington residents died from intentional self-harm or suicide.
While flu and suicide are both in the top 10 causes of death in Washington, COVID-19 has killed more residents than flu and suicide combined in 2018. As of Nov. 9, 2,482 Washington residents have died due to COVID-19.
Rather than sweeping government action in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Graham preaches personal responsibility.
She lives with her mom and uncle, both of whom have chronic lung disease, and her husband, who has diabetes. Though she was infected, nobody in her household got COVID-19, she said.
“I have three people that are high-risk for COVID, so it’s not something that I ever took for granted at all,” Graham said. “We were not careless.”
Once diagnosed, Graham stayed isolated in her room.
“I did not go throughout my house and put anybody else at risk,” Graham said. “That’s taking personal responsibility to not spread this, and care for the people I care about and make sure they didn’t get sick.”
Graham’s ability to isolate is not afforded to everyone. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, crowded living conditions are one of the reasons people of color have been disproportionately impacted by the virus.
Graham fears the economic consequences of restrictions, but is skeptical of another stimulus. The most important thing, she said, is to get people safely back to work.
“Stimulus, again, that’s still taxpayer money, it doesn’t fall out of the sky. That is earned. That’s tax dollars from people working,” Graham said.
Graham expressed particular concern for small, family-owned businesses that are struggling during the pandemic. They have not been the main beneficiaries of government assistance, she lamented.
Many of those businesses will refuse to comply with another shutdown, she said.
“There’s going to be an uprising coming, and I’m hearing it; I’m hearing it from business owners saying they’re not shutting down again, they have nothing to lose this time,” Graham said.
As a state representative, Graham said she hears directly from people who are struggling economically.
“This is what I go to bed with at night; these people are real to me, so that’s definitely on my mind,” Graham said.
Despite sharing a Facebook post that inaccurately described Dr. Anthony Fauci’s position on COVID-19 vaccines, Graham said she is not opposed to vaccines. Still, she expressed concern that a COVID-19 vaccine could be rushed to the market and that pharmaceutical companies would be protected from lawsuits.
“What does matter, though – and you hear so many people talking about corporations and them putting their profits and stuff first, that obviously was what was on my mind,” Graham said. “Please, just don’t cut corners, because it’s not going to be the government that suffers.”
S-R reporter Arielle Dreher contributed to this story