"I wasn’t going to vote until I lost my mother," one woman says
COVID-19 Survivors
Mary Castro (left) and Rosie Davis
| Credit: courtesy Rosie Davis

Rosie Davis remembers first growing worried about her mother in March, as cases of a mysterious new virus spread through the United States — slowly, at first, and then faster and faster and faster.

Davis’ mom, Mary Castro, was then living in a nursing home in Dallas. Long-term care facilities like Castro’s had become troubling sites of outbreaks in the emerging novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Castro — a former nurse who put herself through school while working graveyard shifts at a hospital and raising her kids as a single mom — was at increased risk.

Her health had begun to decline in recent years. Still, she remained alert and curious, always attentive during visits with her daughter, who made the 10-minute trip every day.

By the time coronavirus cases were confirmed around Dallas in March, Castro’s nursing home went into a complete lockdown. Davis, a 44-year-old aesthetician, continued visiting her mother but they were now separated by a glass window.

When Davis arrived on Mother’s Day, in May, she says she immediately noticed "something was really wrong" with Castro.

"She was not very alert. We had to tap on the window to get her attention. She couldn’t hold her own gift," Davis says. "That was a big red flag for me."

“At this time, there was still no mask mandate in Dallas County,” Davis says of her mom. “She had a mask on but it was just looped around her earlobes, not covering her mouth or nose.” 

Davis says she asked the nursing home, where there had been prior coronavirus cases, to examine her mom. But her pleas were unsuccessful. Eventually, she took it upon herself to call 911.

An ambulance arrived, and Davis said goodbye. The memory still makes her emotional.

"The last image I have of my mom was her being lifted into the back of an ambulance," she tells PEOPLE.

Castro did not die quickly, but she did die alone.

Davis called multiple times each day that Castro was hospitalized. By May 16, a nurse said her mom was alert enough to speak on the phone. 

“It was a breath of fresh air to hear her voice ... She said, ‘Have the restrictions been lifted yet? I’m really tired and I don’t want to be in here anymore,’ " Davis says. "And I told her, ‘I’m so sorry that I can’t be with you.’ "

"I believe she knew she was going to die," Davis says now. "She told me, ‘I just want you to know I love you. I’m very proud of you and you’ve been the best daughter to me.’ Her last words to me were, 'When you get to heaven, we’re going to look for each other.’ "

COVID-19 Survivors
Mary Castro (center, behind glass) at her Dallas nursing home
| Credit: courtesy Rosie Davis

The coronavirus killed her the next day. She was 75.

In a heartsick obituary, Castro’s family remembered the mother and grandmother they said should still be alive, a woman who valued her faith, loved to craft and had a “bright green thumb.”

“Her preventable death is due to the most craven, callous failures of the federal and state government,” the family wrote. Davis, her daughter, vowed she would be “galvanizing her grief.”

And that is what she did: Davis joined more than 700 others — survivors of COVID-19 or relatives of those survivors or those killed by the virus — to sign an open letter to President Donald Trump.

In the letter, they assail him for what they say is a lack of leadership and urge him to do more to protect the public as the pandemic — which he has insisted is the on the verge of defeat thanks to medical advancements — continues to break records for daily infections while some 5,000 people continue to die each week.

"Together, we represent a human toll that is staggering to describe," the group's letter to the president reads. "On an average day, more than 43,000 Americans test positive for COVID-19 and hundreds die."

The pandemic has become one of the incontrovertible facts of life in America this year, resistant to a president who has repeatedly tried to pivot away from the health crisis that upended what he saw as a winning message for re-election.

While Trump has pressed an argument that he best can re-build an economy wrecked by the virus, his critics — like a chorus — say the situation was made worse by him to begin with.

Polling consistently shows the the pandemic remains a major concern, as the public sharply disapproves of Trump's response.

Should he lose the Nov. 3 election, it will be in the shadow of COVID-19.

"He’s leaving it in the hands of individuals to take precautions," Davis tells PEOPLE. "It’s every man for themselves.”

“I was never the type of person that voted. I did not vote in 2016. This year, I am voting for the simple fact that this is personal to me," Davis says. "I wasn’t going to vote until I lost my mother.”

The group's letter, sent via email and physical mail to the White House, was put together by COVID Survivors for Change, which describes itself as a nonpartisan community for victims of the virus. It has so far mounted several projects, including setting up 20,000 empty chairs in Washington, D.C., earlier this month to represent the dead.

"Your failed leadership continues to put millions of lives at risk," the group's letter reads. "This is negligence and a callous disregard for our suffering. It is a betrayal of your duty to protect the health and wellbeing of all Americans. We deserve better. We demand better. Your lies and gross mismanagement of the pandemic response has led to a staggering death toll across America that no other developed nation is experiencing: more than 210,000 lives. And this number continues to grow every day."

The letter lays out a list of demands, including "a data-driven pandemic response plan that is based on proven prevention and outbreak reduction strategies, an economic reopening plan that prioritizes the safety of all Americans, and direct support for those most impacted by COVID-19."

“We come from diverse backgrounds. We are Republicans, Democrats, and Independents, and some of our loved ones voted for you in 2016,” the group writes in their letter.

In response, a White House spokesman tells PEOPLE that President Trump "has continually expressed his deepest sympathy" to those harmed by COVID-19 and had been "unrelenting" in his "efforts to defeat this virus."

The spokesman said the group was overlooking that, in the White House's view, Trump "has, in fact, led a data-driven pandemic response and safe reopening plan in his unrelenting efforts to defeat this virus."

final debate
President Donald Trump
| Credit: Getty Images

The spokesman, echoing the president, cited several decisions he has made including restricting some travel from China and Europe early in the year and working to ensure the ventilator supply for states in need.

The spokesman touted the government's vaccine development and testing strategy, but did not note the early problems providing testing kids nationwide or Trump's contradictions about a vaccine timeline.

He also pointed to the passage of various forms of coronavirus stimulus.

It was the Democrats, the spokesman insisted, that were holding up additional support. (Negotiations remain ongoing between the White House and Congress but the Senate’s Republican majority has raised its own objections.)

These arguments do not address a recurring criticism of President Trump, however: that he has waved off the threat the virus poses and the hundreds of thousands of people it has killed.

Among the letter’s signees is South Carolina resident Robert Barrios, who says he supported Trump's candidacy in 2016.

While Robert and his wife, Summer Barrios, took the virus seriously when they first learned about it — wearing masks so to protect their 12-year-old, immune-compromised daughter — they also took cues from local and federal officials even as the Trump administration’s message was often contradictory, epitomized by a president who disdained the importance of masks, downplayed the severity of the virus and feuded with his health officials.

COVID-19 Survivors
Robert Barrios in the hospital
| Credit: Courtesy Summer Barrios

Robert, a 48-year-old warehouse manager who came in close contact with truck drivers throughout the Southeast, worked through the pandemic while Summer stayed home to take care of their daughter.

Though he has diabetes, Robert is young enough that he didn't believe himself to be at high-risk for developing serious complications from the coronavirus disease COVID-19, which is often deadliest for those with underlying health issues.

As the spring came and went, President Trump began telling the American people the pandemic was “fading away.” He urged states across the country to lift restrictions on businesses and social gatherings, sometimes undercutting the timetable suggested by his own health experts, who instead recommended a more measured approach built on maintaining low infection rates, widespread testing and contact tracing.

South Carolina had, at that point, not seen a surge in cases. Businesses began, with restrictions, reopening.

Robert and Summer believed they were out of the woods.

“We would take precautions and sanitize," Summer, 40, tells PEOPLE now. "But when stuff started opening back up, we thought, 'Maybe it's almost over. Surely, they wouldn’t open everything up if it wasn’t safe.' ”

On the last Monday in June — a day that Robert would later say he could hardly remember — he called Summer from work. He “sounded extremely sick,” according to his wife.

After visiting a rapid-access clinic, where he was prescribed steroids and antibiotics, and paying a virtual visit to his doctor, his health continued to worsen. By July 5, he was admitted to a hospital in Anderson, South Carolina. He wouldn’t return home for 81 days

Robert's journey to recovery — if it can be called that — was long and arduous. He was ventilated four times, suffered a collapsed lung and underwent a tracheostomy. His months-long stay in the hospital led to a bout with so-called ICU delirium, an intense confusion marked by hallucinations and paranoia.

At the end of August, he had stabilized enough to go into a long-term care facility, where he stayed for two weeks before being weaned off his trache and coming home.

The man who returned to her, says Summer, is different than the one who left for work in June.

"His memory is just not quite there, and it's not just day-to-day stuff," she says. "It’s almost like amnesia, where it's wiping out entire things. You can have a conversation with him today and tomorrow he will swear up and down that you never talked about it."

Robert struggles to perform even rudimentary tasks and finds himself frequently swimming in brain fog.

Just a few years ago, Summer says, he purchased her a jewelry set for their anniversary. After he saw her wearing it when he came back from the hospital, he no longer remembered where the gift came from.

"Prior to my husband getting COVID, he was a big Trump supporter," Summer says. Now a "long-hauler," Robert's support for the president has dissipated.

COVID-19 Survivors
From left: Robert Barrios at home with his daughter
| Credit: Courtesy Summer Barrios
donald trump
President Donald Trump arrives back at the White House from the hospital on Oct. 5.
| Credit: NICHOLAS KAMM/Getty Images

"[Trump] was so cavalier about ripping off his mask when he got on the balcony to the White House," Summer says, referencing the president's dramatic trip home after himself being hospitalized for three days with COVID-19 earlier this month — a bout with infection that Trump, who received experimental drugs as part of his recovery, insisted made him realize that people should not let the virus “dominate” them.

In a brief video released on social media once he returned to the White House, Trump gushed about his treatment, particularly the antibody cocktail he was given, and he vowed that it would soon be free for all in need.

"I want everybody to be given the same treatment as your president, because I feel great. I feel, like, perfect," he said. "So I think this was a blessing from God that I caught it. This was a blessing in disguise. I caught it, I heard about this drug, I said, 'Let me take it' — it was my suggestion. ... And it was incredible, the way it worked."

More than 10,000 people have died from the virus since then.

“It’s pretty sad that he — as a president — said to the nation: ‘This is like the flu, it’s going to disappear.’ He was the one who got airlifted to a hospital and got first-class healthcare, recovered, came out and acted like ‘Haha look at me, I survived' and then takes his mask off on national television," Davis, whose mother died in Texas, tells PEOPLE. "To us who have lost someone from COVID, that was a slap in our face.”

Summer agrees: "My husband point blank said it was a slap in the face to everybody who either died or is still suffering the lasting effects."

Her name now sits next to Robert’s on the group’s letter to Trump.

"I don't believe COVID is something to rule your life. But I'm sorry, I don't think it's a blessing," Summer says. "And I think it needs to be taken more seriously by this administration. We're living proof of that."