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Assembly candidate, vaccine skeptic Benjamin Yu talks about how COVID-19 sent him to ICU

Assembly candidate Benjamin Yu wasn’t vaccinated when he spent New Year’s in Las Vegas. A week later, when he was back home, the Lake Forest resident was so sick with COVID-19 and his oxygen levels so dangerously low that a local hospital admitted him to intensive care.

The previously healthy 39-year-old said he’s lost “weight, stamina and strength” over the past two weeks. Family and friends who helped take care of Yu also have become sick. At times, he said he’s wanted to bump his head against the wall to “relieve the pain and hopelessness.”

As of Thursday, Yu was still on oxygen at home and struggling to speak. But he used written messages to communicate that he believes he’s now on the path to recovery.

In “hindsight,” Yu said he realizes that being vaccinated “may possibly reduce the severity or duration of the episode.” (Data shows unvaccinated adults are 13 times more likely to end up hospitalized and 20 times more likely to die from the virus.) Yu said he’s considering getting vaccinated when he’s well, “possibly after a few months.” And he’s encouraging others to wear N95 masks and practice good hygiene as the Omnicron variant surges.

“It’s not only for ourselves but for others,” Yu said.

As news of Yu’s condition spread online over the past week, the Republican’s brush with severe COVID became the latest flashpoint in the partisan battle over this public health crisis.

Some on the left seized on Yu’s hospitalization — which came just days after the death of local GOP activist Kelly Ernby, who also wasn’t vaccinated and who Yu called a “great friend” — as the latest example of someone suffering consequences of a poor decision that mirrors misinformation coming from the right.

While Yu has occasionally shared posts on social media that questioned conventional medical advice about COVID-19, he rejects the label “anti-vaxxer.” He said he just had a “wait-and-see attitude” because he felt the vaccines were developed quickly and he wasn’t considered to be at high risk for serious illness. (Decades of studying coronaviruses and developing mRNA vaccines combined with a global sense of urgency sped development of the vaccines, which federal health officials now recommend for most people age 5 and older.)

Meanwhile, some figures on the right also capitalized on Yu’s struggle to circulate more misinformation.

Amy Phan West, a Republican who in 2020 lost a bid for Congress and is running again this year, said via Facebook that Yu, who she identified as a friend, was being pressured but had refused to let hospital doctors treat him with remdesivir. Though the antiviral drug has been clinically proven to help reduce the duration and severity of COVID-19 in patients, West’s page blew up with comments from supporters calling remdesivir “a path to a ventilator” and saying it “should be criminal to use it.”

Remdesivir has been targeted by some on the right ever since it gained support from Dr. Anthony Fauci, who many Republicans feel undermined President Donald Trump when it came to the need for coronavirus safety measures. Fauci announced in April of 2020 that the drug showed promise and it since has gained FDA approval.

Dr. Shruti Gohil, associate medical director for epidemiology and infection prevention at UC Irvine’s School of Medicine, on Thursday described remdesivir as a sometimes “lifesaving” drug for COVID-19 patients. While there may have been some conflicting studies about remdesivir and many other treatments in the early days of the pandemic, Gohil pointed to nearly two years of solid evidence that it can help reduce the length and severity of COVID-19 cases. The drug was given to Trump, among others, and Gohil describes it as a “mainstay” of treatment protocols.

Yu said West is wrong about him being pressured to use remdesivir. He said he never had a conversation with her about his medical decisions, and added that he still doesn’t understand the “political fuss” over remdesivir. He said he follows recommendations from the professionals when he goes to a hospital.

“I don’t mix politics into my health,” he said. “Please don’t put words into my mouth. I can speak for myself.”

West didn’t respond to a request to speak for this story. The Westminster resident is running for Congress in the new coastal 47th District against Rep. Katie Porter, D-Irvine, and other GOP candidates.

West previously declined to answer a question about whether she’s vaccinated. She and Ernby both were speakers in December at an Irvine rally against vaccine mandates. She also regularly shares social media posts that cast doubt about the efficacy of pandemic-related prevention and treatment methods, falsely claiming that masks don’t work against COVID. In November, she posted: “I remember when we treated a virus with warm soup, vitamin C, and plenty of rest…instead of Communism.”

Yu, who’s Chinese American, has peppered his campaign appearances with references to “the Democratic Party’s slide toward socialism, which reminds many of us of the communism we fled in China.” But on Thursday he said, “COVID, like past flus, seems stuck with us for (a) long time to come. The difference is COVID is severe, more contagious and generally more lethal, particularly to high risk groups, so we just have to face and deal with it from a general public and individual (standpoint).”

Yu grew up in New York and joined the Army in the aftermath of Sept. 11. He now serves on the Lake Forest Traffic and Parking commission and the boards of several community organizations while pursuing public office.

In 2020, Yu ran for the 68th Assembly District seat against GOP incumbent Steven Choi and two Democratic challengers but failed to make it out of the March primary. He also lost a November run for Saddleback Valley Unified School District’s board of directors.

This year, Yu is again running for Assembly against a fellow Republican. Following once-in-a-decade redistricting, he’ll challenge Newport Beach Councilwoman Diane Dixon for the new 72nd Assembly seat, which covers north coastal Orange County and stretches east through his hometown of Lake Forest. He hopes to start campaigning again once he’s well.

Yu said he’s not sure how he contracted the virus. He said he felt tired and some other common symptoms while he was in Las Vegas over the holidays, so he visited the Veterans Affairs hospital emergency room, where he tested positive for COVID-19. A doctor administered an IV, then told him to rest. He later went back to the VA emergency room in Vegas, where he received a steroid.

After coming home to Orange County about a week ago, he started feeling worse. He said he was briefly admitted to the ICU at Saddleback Medical Center for low oxygen levels. He asked to be sent home with an oxygen machine so he could recover with his family and his dog Max while letting the hospital use its resources for those who need them the most.

As for the attention his battle with COVID-19 has gathered online, drawing tweets such as “I’ve tested negative for sympathy,” Yu said, “Social media is not a fun public square.” He said he’s changed some of his past posts so only close friends can see them. But he said he’s also received lots of well wishes and prayers, which he said “gives me great comfort and strength to relax and recover.”

The deaths of two Orange County residents were reported Thursday, according to county health department data. Another 1,072 people were hospitalized, with 168 people in the ICU. Nearly 6,000 people have died of COVID-19 in Orange County since the pandemic began.

Orange County residents can get information about free COVID-19 vaccinations, boosters, testing and other resources at occovid19.ochealthinfo.com.

Read More: Assembly candidate, vaccine skeptic Benjamin Yu talks about how COVID-19 sent him to ICU

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