Friend Defends Herman Cain from Trump Rally Criticism and Insists He Did Take Coronavirus Seriously

"This is such a partisan age and people get defined by where they stood on the political spectrum and I'm sure a lot of people will define Herman in that way — that was so much not who he was," the friend says

Here is what Herman Cain's friend and colleague Dan Calabrese, who announced his death to the world on Thursday morning, would like to say about criticism that Cain treated the novel coronavirus flippantly — only weeks before it killed him.

The radio and TV host and former business executive, who was a headline-grabbing 2012 Republican presidential candidate, died about a month after he became sick with the novel coronavirus disease. He was 74.

"To me, where he got it, it’s kind of neither here nor there. But I wish people would stop trying to turn it into a political angle in that way," Calabrese, the editor of Cain's website, tells PEOPLE.

"This is such a partisan age and people get defined by where they stood on the political spectrum and I’m sure a lot of people will define Herman in that way," Calabrese says. "That was so much not who he was. His favorite thing to do was to help people see a way forward in their lives."

Calabrese pushed back on what he calls the overconfident assumption by some that Cain got sick while attending President Donald Trump's Oklahoma rally last month while not wearing a mask, at an event officials believe is linked to other new infections.

Cain had traveled widely before he got sick, Calabrese says.

"I want people to know he did a lot of traveling that week, he traveled to Vegas, he was gonna go to Arizona and I think his flight got redirected. He was on several flights," Calabrese says. "The whole conclusion that people are jumping to that he got it at the Tulsa rally — I think that a lot of people are jumping to that conclusion because they want to, but we have no reason to think he got it there as opposed to some of the airplanes he might have been on."

Herman Cain
Herman Cain in November 2019. MediaPunch/Shutterstock

"There’s people that are running around on Twitter ... going, ‘Oh wasn’t he a COVID denier?’ No," says Calabrese.

Despite being seen without a mask at the Oklahoma event in late June, Cain understood the threat posed by the virus, his friend says, insisting that Cain did wear a mask at times and was an "advocate" of proper coronavirus prevention such as mask-wearing and hand-washing.

(Cain's official Twitter, which was also run by staffers, post a since-deleted tweet in June that people who wouldn't wear masks were "FED UP.” But he spoke approvingly of masks back in April.)

Calabrese announced Cain's death in an obituary on his website on Thursday.

"We all prayed so hard every day. We knew the time would come when the Lord would call him home, but we really liked having him here with us, and we held out hope he’d have a full recovery," Calabrese wrote.

He tells PEOPLE Cain had "such an impact and such a light, certainly in our lives. ... You couldn’t have gotten to know a more pleasant person."

Cain was hospitalized with COVID-19 in early July, not long after attending the June 20 Trump rally in Tulsa, leaving many to conclude that he had contracted it there.

Several of Trump's campaign staffers also tested positive in connection with that event, which health officials believe to be linked to a subsequent surge in infections in the area.

In the wake of Cain's death — as he was mourned by prominent Republican lawmakers like President Trump — others used his case to advocate for mask-wearing, which studies confirm slows the virus' spread.

Herman Cain
Herman Cain in November 2011. NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty

Cain had spent most of July getting treated for COVID-19 in an Atlanta-area hospital. His team has said that he tested positive on June 29 and he began showing symptoms on July 1 before he was then hospitalized.

Earlier this week, Cain’s representatives said in an update that he was still in the hospital and was “being treated with oxygen for his lungs.”

"As recently as a week ago, it seemed pretty hopeful. ... We did feel pretty encouraged, because it was like if anyone is going to pull through it’s gonna be him," Calabrese tells PEOPLE. But Cain's condition appeared to take a sharp turn in more recent days: "It didn’t seem like it was getting better like he should have."

Cain is survived by his wife, Gloria, children Vincent and Melanie and their three grandchildren.

"They need our love, our support and our prayers," Calabrese wrote Thursday. "Nothing I talked about above meant as much to him as these wonderful people did, and because he loved them so much, we will continue to feel his impact on the world through them."

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Updated by Claudia Harmata
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