A survivor. A funeral director. A marriage divided. How Americans’ COVID experiences shape their votes

HOUSTON, TEXAS-JULY 1, 2020-HOUSTON, TEXAS-JULY 1, 2020-Putting a patient on a ventilator is a last resort. Dr. Joseph Varon, center, does emergency treatment on Terry Hill, age 65, after putting him on a ventilator assisted by his team of nurses and medical students. At United Memorial Medical Center in Houston, Texas, Dr. Joseph Varon leads a team to fight the increasing number of coronavirus patients in the expanded Covid-19 ward on July 1, 2020. (Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)
Dr. Joseph Varon, center, does emergency treatment on a COVID-19 patient at United Memorial Medical Center in Houston this summer. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

In Wisconsin, a funeral home director who has watched the COVID-19 pandemic rip through her community can only blame President Trump.

In Texas, little can change one woman’s loyalty to the president — not even her own struggle for breath as she lay in a hospital bed.

In New Mexico, an underemployed firearms instructor plans to cast his vote as a rebuke to Democrats he says were overzealous in closing businesses.

In Arizona, a Joe Biden voter found political detente with his Republican wife as the lingering effects of infection continue to cause them pain.

In Michigan, a school bus driver won over by the president before the pandemic deepened her devotion and took up arms to protest shutdowns.

Even before the coronavirus sunk in its teeth, the United States was deeply polarized. Facts mattered less than feelings and political parties acted like tribes.

The virus — a shared, microscopic enemy that demanded a unified response — offered the nation a chance to come together. But from face masks to shutdowns, the pandemic quickly became the main thing Americans were fighting over.

As the death toll grew so did anxieties about who would win the presidency.

Election day arrives as the virus surges like never before, with an average of more than 80,000 new cases reported each day last week — well over previous spikes and up more than 44% from two weeks earlier.

Once concentrated in urban centers like New York and later in Sun Belt states, the virus is now ravaging the rural Midwest and Rocky Mountain states.

Field hospitals have been pitched in parking lots from Texas to Wisconsin. In the past week, hospitalizations reached new highs in 18 different states.

Treatment is improving and infections are increasingly concentrated in younger people with high odds of survival, but experts predict a significant rise in the U.S. death toll, which now tops 230,000.

The surge poses a dilemma for officials trying to balance health concerns with economic ones as the public grows wary of more forced shutdowns.

Polls suggest that most voters have made up their minds — and record numbers have already cast their ballots.

All of the issues that divided America before coronavirus have been eclipsed.

This is the pandemic election. And these are the stories of five voters.

The funeral home director

The first call came in late March.

A 70-year-old had died shortly after being taken off a ventilator. Michelle Pitts sent a hearse to pick up his body from the hospital.

Michelle Pitts, owner of New Pitts Mortuary, stands outside her Milwaukee funeral home.
Michelle Pitts, owner of New Pitts Mortuary, stands outside her Milwaukee funeral home. (Kurtis Lee / Los Angeles Times)

There would be no funeral, just a burial at the cemetery attended by three relatives. The family was too worried about contagion.

Pitts was left with the feeling that “this virus was going to be

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