'They're calling me a survivor': George Santos' evolving story of fighting covid
Shifting timelines, changing symptoms and even talk of a brain tumor
For George Santos, a long-shot GOP congressional candidate in 2020, the covid pandemic was personal: he was one of the earliest Americans infected, Santos repeatedly said in interviews before the election.
It was “two weeks of agony,” Santos said on Newsmax in October 2020, above a chyron that billed him as a covid survivor.
Covid led to “very aggressive pneumonia” for Santos and left him with “a cough that lingered around for 30 days,” according to The Island Now, a local news outlet, in September 2020. “Nobody would come near me thinking I was still viral,” Santos reportedly told the paper.
But in a series of earlier interviews, Santos cited different dates for his diagnosis, a different set of symptoms and a much shorter bout of infection. Rather than weeks of agony, Santos initially said he suffered a high fever for several days but was able to manage it at home with cold medicine.
And not long after that, he was back to outdoor exercise.
“It wasn’t comfortable… but that’s over,” Santos said in a March 24 video, as he left quarantine and began a 5-mile roundtrip walk.
In a live interview posted on March 29 — where he appears energetic throughout the hour-long conversation, with no visible coughing bouts — Santos again played down his covid experience.
“They’re calling me a survivor,” Santos says, chuckling. “I don’t know if I really survived anything” that’s worse than flu.
Getting national attention after getting sick
Santos didn’t win election to Congress in 2020, but his failed campaign helped set the stage for his successful bid in 2022.
And his personal covid experience was also professionally useful: it helped him land about a dozen interviews, including on national networks like Fox News and OAN, where Santos talked about getting sick and his advice to Donald Trump after the president contracted his own covid infection.
I got curious about Santos’ covid claims earlier this week, after the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN and other outlets dug into his biography and found numerous lies.
The GOP congressman-elect has already walked back some of his claims — memorably.
So I ended up watching or reading about a dozen of Santos’ interviews on his covid case, as well as a covid town hall he hosted in April 2020, and reviewing his social media posts and campaign literature. (I also reached out to his campaign on Thursday morning with questions but haven’t heard back.)
One immediate takeaway: the contours of Santos’ covid story changed throughout the year.
In a March 2020 interview, for instance, Santos said that his covid case was complicated by a serious cancer scare:
I have an immunodeficiency, and I also have acute chronic bronchitis… I also battled a brain tumor a couple of years ago, and I had radiation done, which really, really lowers your immunity in general. Radiation isn't a game, right? And I'm susceptible to cancer. It's in my DNA, right?
Santos doesn’t appear to mention the brain tumor again, at least not in the interviews I saw, or on his campaign website.
Meanwhile, in the September 2020 interview published with The Island Now, Santos said that his underlying medical problems meant he only had 70 percent lung capacity. As a result, Santos’ covid couldn’t be handled with “traditional treatments,” the publication reported — whatever that means.
A changing timeline
When Santos did his first round of interviews about his covid case, he generally stuck to the following timeline about his own diagnosis:
— Late February 2020: Santos attended CPAC, the conservative political conference, where it later turned out that a fellow attendee was positive with coronavirus.
— March 9: Santos said he felt mild cold symptoms and decided to stay at home, worried that he was exposed to covid at CPAC.
— March 11: Santos said his symptoms worsened and he called 911. He said he was taken to Elmhurst Hospital, where he was isolated for several hours and tested. He said he was then sent home and told to manage his symptoms with cold medicine.
— March 14: Santos said he got confirmation from Elmhurst Hospital that he tested positive for covid, although his fever had already broken the day before.
It’s worth noting: This timeline is based on interviews that Santos gave a few days later. He did not appear to publicly acknowledge his private covid fight as it was unfolding.
For instance, his campaign put out the following statement about the covid crisis on March 14 with a quote attributed to him, but did not mention Santos’ own suspected or confirmed covid diagnosis.
Then came Donald Trump’s own covid diagnosis in October 2020 — and a new round of interviews.
But this time, Santos began describing a much more severe case of covid. “The worst 72 hours of probably my adult life,” he told one interviewer.
“It was a very long, arduous fight of two weeks, and all I had at my disposal was Advil for the fever… there was no hydroxychloroquine,” he said on Newsmax.
Santos also began moving up his covid diagnosis by a few days: his bout began on March 7, he said on Fox News and repeated elsewhere, suggesting that’s when he tested positive.
Writing on Twitter months later, Santos would again move up his timeline even earlier in the outbreak, telling a person that he went to Elmhurst Hospital to be tested on March 4, 2020. That would have put him among the first handful of New Yorkers to test positive for covid, if so.
“true story and you can google it,” Santos wrote.
To what end?
At minimum, Santos changed his covid story repeatedly, from the symptoms he suffered to the dates he said he tested positive.
At maximum… well, a “brain tumor” wouldn’t be the first thing that Santos made up.
Was it just forgetfulness, or mild fibbing about personal health drama? Or were these outright lies, because it was helpful to be the candidate with a covid story, particularly in hard-hit New York?
So I emailed his campaign a series of questions about his health claims. For instance, if Santos had such severe covid and even pneumonia, with a persistent cough that lasted for a month, how was he able to do video interviews without a cough while he was ill? How was he able to walk 5 miles on his first day out of quarantine?
And what about Santos’ reported pre-existing conditions? When did Santos undergo treatment for a brain tumor?
And amid all the other questions about Santos’ background, can he prove when he tested positive for covid in the first place?
Given that Santos is facing calls to resign, a local investigation and myriad news outlets fact-checking his biography, I don’t know if any answers are forthcoming. But I’d still like someone to ask Santos about his covid claims — and if the embattled New Yorker does survive his scandals and make it to Congress next week, as he’s pledged, perhaps I’ll get the chance to do it myself.
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Had Santos tested positive on March 4, 2020, that would have made Santos among the first 11 people in all of New York State to test positive. Ten of those people were connected to an attorney in Westchester County; the 11th was a woman who had returned from Iran. Had Santos tested positive on March 7, that would have made him among the first 500 Americans to test positive.