San Francisco nurse who barely survived COVID-19 sparks backlash for allegedly partying in Mexico

Eufemia Didonato

Mike Schultz, a nurse at Sutter Health in San Francisco, made national headlines last May after sharing a set of photos on Facebook that concisely summed up the toll COVID-19 took on him. “I wanted to show everyone how badly being sedated for 6 weeks on a ventilator or intubated […]

Mike Schultz, a nurse at Sutter Health in San Francisco, made national headlines last May after sharing a set of photos on Facebook that concisely summed up the toll COVID-19 took on him.

“I wanted to show everyone how badly being sedated for 6 weeks on a ventilator or intubated can be,” he shared on Instagram, along with an image showing him before his COVID-19 diagnosis alongside one in the midst of his hospitalization where he weighed 50 pounds less, his broad and jacked stature all but gone.

Schultz contracted COVID-19 in March after attending Miami’s Winter Party Festival, a weeklong circuit party — all-night raves primarily for the LGBT community. It was held days before U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines recommended against gatherings of more than 50 people. At least 4,000 men attended the gathering, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported.

Schultz told BuzzFeed News that he traveled to Boston to see his then-boyfriend, DJ and fitness influencer Josh Hebblethwaite, a week after attending the festival together. (Hebblethwaite did not respond to a request for comment from SFGATE.) Two days later, Schultz was hospitalized and later intubated, a harrowing ordeal that spanned multiple hospitals and several weeks.

The support for Schultz was massive and multilateral: An accompanying GoFundMe, coordinated by Hebblethwaite and another friend, Jon Mastronardi, raised more than $20,000. His story was told on CNN, NBC News and Fox News.

Now, nearly a year after he was first hospitalized with COVID-19, Schultz has emerged as the focal point of a massive brouhaha within the gay community — turmoil that is a microcosm of the diverging ways Americans have handled the pandemic amid a drastic, punishing uptick in cases and the weaponization of social media, for better or worse, in holding accountable people unwilling to adhere to COVID-19 mandates and regulations.

In a matter of months, the Instagram account @gaysovercovid has become the primary crusader against the (mostly) white, fit gay men who eschewed established safety policies to attend large celebrations in homes and nightclubs here and abroad.

@gaysovercovid was started by an anonymous gay man in his late 20s and began as a space, he explained in a rare interview, for people reluctant to shame their friends one-on-one to litigate their behavior in “a public forum.” With incendiary callouts, targeted jabs at people the account identified and memes aplenty, it has since attracted more than 120,000 followers and shows no signs of slowing down.

I began following the account during the holidays, resentful of the people who congregated en masse while I spent Christmas alone for the first time in my life. The calling-out of reckless people on the account, I reasoned, was easier to handle than the extended bouts of loneliness and grief that I endured over the past nine months.

Presumably, plenty of other people did, too.

By December, the account’s influence — and contentiousness — reached a fever pitch. A circuit party scheduled to be held on New Year’s Eve in Puerto Vallarta was moved after reports swirled about a dearth of hospital beds in the area. The new venue was located off Mexico’s Pacific coast, an area with less stringent restrictions.

@gaysovercovid and its army of supporters went to work, condemning individuals who posted themselves in the area for the circuit party — as well as rallying against the organizers who enabled the mass congregation in the first place.

Administrators of the account did not respond to a request for an interview from SFGATE.

Around the time the circuit party began making waves online, Schultz reportedly shared a photo of himself on his personal Instagram account counting down the weeks until a trip to Puerto Vallarta — ostensibly to attend the function. “Less than three weeks to (Puerto Vallarta),” the post said. “Can’t wait!”

It’s unclear whether he ended up attending the party, or even whether he went down south for the New Year. He told BuzzFeed News that he didn’t. (Schultz did not respond to multiple requests for comment from SFGATE.)

But internet sleuths found more damning evidence of his seeming ambivalence to the same virus that wrecked his body earlier in the year.

According to Instinct Magazine and SFist, he posted a screengrab of another person’s Instagram story on New Year’s Eve seemingly in opposition to the callouts popularized by @gaysovercovid. “You f—ing bitter queens … always tearing down other gays!” the original Instagram post read.

“At this point … survival of the fittest,” the post went on to say. “It’s life. Sorry.”

The response online to Schultz’s posts, for better or worse, was swift and brutal: Many derided the hypocrisy of a man who struggled with COVID-19 eventually endorsing risky behavior and potentially exposing people in Mexico, which is currently grappling with its own coronavirus crisis, to the virus. Others called for his employer, Sutter Health, to reprimand him or fire him.

A representative from Sutter Health told SFGATE that Schultz has been advised to quarantine and “the situation is under further review.”

Schultz, it was revealed, was part of a countermovement originating from a Facebook group named that emerged in opposition to @gaysovercovid. Its members sought to identify the people behind the calling-out account, offering a $500 reward. They went on to brand themselves as #gaysoverkarens.

“For so long they have been hiding behind the screen trying to out fellow gays, making our community as divisive as ever,” the post by Lan Vu read. “If they believe what they’re doing is right, why be a coward and not let us know who they really are.”

Vu, a San Francisco-based salon owner, went on to tell reporters Taylor Lorenz and Alex Hawgood: “People stay home too long and they lose control of their lives and try to control other people’s lives.”

All this leads to a question that has been debated throughout the pandemic: Does shaming people for their indiscretion actually work?

Existing research finds that shame is not an effective strategy for changing an individual’s behavior, Yale Medicine clinical psychologist Marney White points out.

She told SFGATE: “Punishment in general is not the ideal behavior change strategy — it would be much more effective to publicly praise people for following the guidance.”

And while White acknowledges accounts like @gaysovercovid as “a safe way to call out without risking interpersonal conflict” and shares in the frustration of people brazenly defying COVID-19 rules, she warns that it “likely risks the opposite effect.”

“Public shaming could result in people developing stronger and more resolved justifications for their behavior,” White noted.

She also expressed concern that the account “has this flair of putting the gay community (exclusively) at fault” despite the fact that the people featured make up only a very small subsection of the gay community. (For what it’s worth, a lot of digital space has been given to all manner of COVID-19 rule breakers, including churchgoers, college students, swingers, local, state and federal politicians and countless influencers — albeit often without a single Instagram account focusing on them.)

Schultz’s case, inevitably, was a perfect storm for a social media backlash. Here was a case of someone, it seemed, who received sympathy nationwide for his bout with the coronavirus but was unwilling to extend the same courtesy to those around him, even online.

To be clear, calling someone out online isn’t always done with safety and accountability in mind; there’s certainly a tinge of resentment in seeing someone live their life as if a global pandemic is just a blip in their radar. (Some of the people who trekked to Puerto Vallarta despite online criticism ended up on a gay party cruise that capsized. No one was hurt, but parts of the internet reveled in their misery.)

But when people feel unmoored and unable to control their circumstances as the coronavirus pandemic continues to take lives indiscriminately, logging on to to call someone out for being reckless is an easy, actionable salve. It is an incomplete, flawed solution wracked with myriad problems, an answer that does not even begin to address the onslaught of problems that have manifested over the course of the pandemic and the failed response to the virus on multiple fronts.

That said, it’s hard to imagine that whatever hardship comes from being railed against online compares to the cruelties of the pandemic. The virus has infected more than 2.5 million Californians and 21 million Americans. ICUs nationwide are overrun with patients, forcing hospitals to triage and to leave their most vulnerable people to die. The death toll so far is more than 28,000 Californians and 360,000 Americans. Those who haven’t died can suffer long-lasting repercussions to their health. The COVID-19 vaccine’s rollout has been hampered by inefficiencies and anti-vaxxers, both online and at medical facilities. New mutations of the virus keep popping up.

With this at stake, whether it’s right or wrong to call someone out online for ignoring COVID-19 almost feels beside the point.

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