Nurse with breakthrough COVID says Michigan GOP has turned pandemic into a ‘bloodsport’

By: - September 29, 2021 6:38 am

Julia Pulver, Ben Pulver and their children | Julia Pulver photo

Julia Pulver, a registered nurse from West Bloomfield who’s twice run for the Legislature as a Democrat, already had a lot to say about public health policy.

Now, after emerging from a breakthrough COVID-19 case last week, Pulver talked to the Advance Monday about how individual health choices affect the public, the importance of vaccinations in the face of “inevitable” exposure to COVID-19, the politicization of the virus and anti-vaxxers in the medical field.

“We had one shot,” Pulver said. “This past year was our one shot, ever since the vaccine became widely available, to tamp it down and shut it down and make sure it didn’t continue to have different variants. … [But] this virus is winning.”

Julia Pulver

Pulver, who has four children aged 14,13, 12 and 9, was immediately worried when her husband, Ben, contracted the virus at work. He’s a personal chef and had worked in moderately close contact with a new, unvaccinated chef for about 10 hours.

Drawing on her medical expertise, Pulver diligently kept a family health chart to monitor everyone’s symptoms and vitals. But as her husband began to feel better, Pulver realized she was becoming symptomatic herself.

“I’m happy to report that [Ben and I] were able to contain it to just the two of us. And it did not spread anywhere else. We made sure our COVID died with us,” she said.

The Pulvers and their three oldest children are all fully vaccinated, but their youngest isn’t, as children under 12 years old have not yet been approved to receive shots.

“It’s sort of inevitable, and that’s where we’re at right now. It’s not a matter of if you encounter COVID; it’s when. It’s when you encounter COVID, and are you protected,” Pulver said.

Someone is considered to have a COVID breakthrough case upon receiving a positive test 14 or more days after being fully vaccinated. From Jan. 1 to Sept. 14, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) reports that less than 1% of Michiganders who were fully vaccinated met this case definition — 28,974 individuals.

Health experts warn cases like these are to be expected, as no vaccine is 100% effective at preventing illness and the highly contagious Delta variant has spread across the country. But vaccinations typically make illness less severe for those breakthrough cases, in addition to lowering the risk of infection, hospitalization and death.

As of Monday, a total of 1,015,802 Michiganders have tested positive for COVID-19 and 20,898 have died from the virus.

Pulver counts herself and her husband lucky. As they were both fully vaccinated, they each only experienced the worst symptoms in a span of about six days and did not need hospitalization. For the unvaccinated, those symptoms are more likely to be more severe and prolonged.

But the experience also made her brutally aware of the far-reaching consequences that just one unvaccinated person can pass on to many others.

When you overrun a hospital system, it's not just the COVID patients that suffer. It’s everyone else.

– Julia Pulver

“This has now made a profound impact on our family,” Pulver said. “And it was because that one person decided that he didn’t want to get vaccinated, and he wanted to go hang out with his other family who were likely unvaccinated and then come to work with my husband. So he made that choice for us.”

The school guidelines for Pulver’s youngest daughter also require that a student living in a house with COVID-positive people cannot return to school for 20 days.

“He made the choice for us to get sick and to keep my kid out of school for three whole weeks of fourth-grade education,” Pulver said.

Pulver first ran for the state Senate in 2018, losing to state Sen. Jim Runestad (R-White Lake). Last year, she unsuccessfully challenged state Rep. Ryan Berman (R-Commerce Twp.), who has said he’s running for attorney general in 2022.

She said she’s dismayed by Republicans’ approach to the pandemic, arguing that “they don’t know how to deal with this.”

“Things that were at one point controversial are now just completely common and common sense. And we’re at one of those junctures again, but the scary part is not everybody has the same goal,” Pulver said. “And that is what is terrifying to me. … The Michigan GOP have turned this into a bloodsport.”

Using science to combat COVID-19

As an RN, Pulver’s view of ideal public policy while staring down the barrel of a deadly pandemic is methodical: Vaccinate; test; trace; isolate; repeat.

“That is how we get this thing down to where we can snuff it out,” and only have small pockets of the virus pop up, Pulver said. “But people have to be willing to do the work — which is not even that much to ask. [Vaccines are] free. It’s convenient.”

Pulver received her bachelor of science degree from Western Michigan University and is currently working on a master of science in nursing administration from Capella University.

She has worked at many different medical posts since 2006 — from being a nurse in several different hospitals and newborn intensive care units (NICUs) to currently being one of three co-founders and managing partners of a hospital consulting company.

With her medical background, public health policy was Pulver’s primary platform during both of her runs for state office.

A large part of her current frustration is the wealth of misinformation about COVID-19 that continues to hinder progress on eradicating it. That includes conspiracy theories about the safety and efficacy of vaccines — even, inexplicably, from some nurses and doctors.

“This is not new. This is not new technology,” Pulver said of vaccines. “This is not even a new concept; we have eradicated so many preventable diseases with vaccines. But you would think that this was a novel idea. And it’s not. It is a centuries old idea that is proven, and it works. And we have successfully rid the world of certain diseases because of really great vaccine programs. Let’s do that again.”

To target some Michiganders’ hesitancy to vaccinate or even wear face masks, Pulver said she wishes public officials would frame things like mask mandates as a positive way to take care of your community and family, as opposed to something the state is forcing individuals to do.

She also would like to see more pushback on COVID-19 misinformation, particularly when it is coming from the mouths of officials who residents look up to for guidance.

Your immune system is your own personal army. And if you're not giving them the training (vaccines) they need to kill the enemies, then you just led your soldiers into an ambush.

– Julia Pulver

For those vaccine-hesitant Michiganders who don’t view a vaccine as worthwhile if there is still a chance to contract a breakthrough case, Pulver says to them: “We’re still here. That’s the difference.”

Pulver said she knew a woman who caught COVID-19 around the same time she did. She was roughly the same age and also was the mother of four children around the same age as Pulver’s brood.

“The difference is, I’m alive and talking to you right now. And that woman is unfortunately dead and has left four kids behind,” Pulver said. “And she’s not alone — we keep seeing cases like this over and over again.”

Since COVID-19 and variants are so widespread across the state and the rest of the country, Pulver said it is essentially a “mathematical certainty” that everyone comes into contact with the virus at some point.

And when they do, she said it all comes down to the question of whether your body is prepared for the fight.

“The best way you can be prepared to fight it is to be vaccinated. Give your immune system training on how to beat this thing, because that’s what a vaccine is,” Pulver said. “… Your immune system is your own personal army. And if you’re not giving them the training they need to kill the enemies, then you just led your soldiers into an ambush.”

The politics of COVID-19

The moment former President Donald Trump began politicizing COVID-19 in 2020, going after Democratic governors like Gretchen Whitmer, Pulver said she felt her heart in her throat and immediately knew what the ripple effect would be.

“I had one of those very crestfallen moments where I realized I could see exactly what was coming,” she said. “I thought, ‘Oh, no, they’re making this political. This is going to get so many people killed.’”

President Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC on April 24th, 2020. | Anna Moneymaker/The New York Times/POOL/Getty Images

With Trump’s framing of the pandemic, Republican leadership all over the country — Michigan included — soon began to follow the Republican president’s lead by giving voice to anti-vaxxers and providing credence to conspiracy theories. Pulver said the Michigan GOP’s policy response to COVID-19 has left her with “sheer frustration and heartbreak.”

The latest COVID-related bills being pushed by GOP state lawmakers include legislation to prohibit schools from requiring students to be vaccinated or wear face masks.

At the same time, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) has pushed back against Whitmer’s health orders since spring 2020, joined a lawsuit to strip her emergency pandemic powers, opposes school mask mandates, and has repeated false claims about “natural immunity” while refusing to be vaccinated himself.

“It’s been a battle to try to depoliticize this, to provide rational, fact-based, science-based information, which is a struggle in any public health campaign,” Pulver said.

That struggle is made even more complicated by a small portion of nurses and doctors who, despite their medical training and knowledge, have publicly aligned themselves with anti-vaccine and anti-mask activism.

“Unfortunately, because [COVID-19] has become so politicized, that trumps their training and their skillset, which is very sad,” Pulver said.

“They have no excuse. Other people who are being led astray who don’t understand what’s going on, you know, I can have some empathy, sensitivity for them. But [for those trained in the medical field], you know better. You absolutely know better. If you decide that this is the hill you want to die on, fine. But you don’t get to work here. You don’t get to put our patients in jeopardy,” she said.

Pulver added that she would like to see more disciplinary action for the medical professionals who refuse vaccines and espouse information about the virus that has claimed nearly 21,000 lives in Michigan.

“If I make a conscious decision to endanger my patient’s life, I should be held in front of the Michigan State Board of Nursing to explain why I made the conscious decision to risk my patient’s life,” she said. “This isn’t a game.”

The decision to not get vaccinated causes “collateral damage,” Pulver says: “When you overrun a hospital system, it’s not just the COVID patients that suffer. It’s everyone else. … It’s all connected.”

There's not two sides to this. … The two sides to this are honestly life and death.

– Julia Pulver

The politicization of COVID-19 and the lens many GOP politicians see it through manifests itself in many detrimental ways, Pulver says, from legislators downplaying the severity of the virus to being more concerned about protecting their public image than following COVID-19 protocols of tracing and isolating.

“When they test positive, then it becomes a PR issue instead of a public health issue,” she said. “That needs to stop. There’s not two sides to this, or it’s not the two sides that are presented. The two sides to this are honestly life and death.”

When asked whether she intends to run for office a third time, the Democrat told the Advance Monday she won’t completely rule it out.

“I have no plans to run in 2022 or 2024,” she said. “I got into all of this, and advocacy and everything, because I really wanted to make an impact on public health, on patients’ health, on patient advocacy. I tried to do that through electoral means and wasn’t successful. … But I’m pursuing other avenues to try to make a more direct impact.

“So I’m not planning on running anytime in the near future, but I never say never,” Pulver added.


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Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins covers the environment, Native issues and criminal justice for the Advance. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service. When Laina is not writing or spending time with her cats, she loves art and design, listening to music, playing piano, enjoying good food and being out in nature (especially Up North).