Ignoring Science Does Not Make It Go Away – Our Crisis in National Leadership

From early in the pandemic, our public health leaders have said there were five things that each of us should do to protect ourselves and each other from the coronavirus and to mitigate its spread:

  • Wear a mask or face covering when you are out in public.
  • Wash your hands frequently with soap and water for 20 seconds.
  • Practice social distancing by staying at least 6 feet away from others.
  • Avoid crowds.
  • Cover your mouth it you sneeze or cough. (Then wash your hands as described above.)

Many other nations have been successful in reducing infections and reopening their economies by using these personal hygiene guidelines coupled with the things that governments can do to manage a healthcare crisis and lead their nations to a better place. They established or expanded contact tracing. They made testing available. They closed their borders when necessary. They made sure that they had PPE’s for their doctors, nurses and EMTs. 

South Korea and New Zealand started before many other nations to control the spread of the virus and have had superior results. Other nations like Spain and Italy had large infection and death rates early in the pandemic, however each of these nations has been able to greatly reduce their infection and death rates. A relapse can come at any time and public health officials believe that there could be a second wave as the weather gets colder and the flu season begins.  Meanwhile the United States has less than 5% of the world’s population and more than 20% of the deaths in this pandemic. Our death total is the higher than any nation. It just passed 200,000 this week.

The most important personal hygiene suggestion is wearing a mask or facial covering. All of the nations of the world that have been more successful than the U.S. thus far have required their citizens wear face coverings when they are out in pubic near other people. President Trump did not support this and delegated virus mitigation to the governors of each state. As a result, only 31 states require masks or face coverings and it has been estimated that only 45% of our population wear masks.

Public health officials say that if 95% of Americans would wear masks for the next six weeks we could almost eliminate infections around the county. Every day 30,000 to 40,000 Americans are infected and almost 1,000 Americans die from COVID-19. As a reference point, if we compare our COVID data with several European nations that together have a population that is about 20% higher than ours while we are losing 1,000 Americans each day, their total number of COVID deaths is only 53 each day! Today more than 6.6 million Americans have been infected with the coronavirus and if this rate of infections continues through the rest of the year, the total of Americans that have had the virus will exceed 10 million. 

Leadership and planning are very important whenever a nation faces a national crisis. Sadly, in the United States our President did not lead and did not put forward a plan to attack community spread of the virus. To his credit, he did close the western border with China and later the eastern border with Europe for non-citizens (although both of these boarder closures should have been instituted sooner). He did work with major companies to expand ventilator production which prevented a shortage when they were really needed. He encouraged and financially supported the pharmaceutical industry’s accelerated effort to develop a vaccine that may be available for production and distribution by the end of the year. The President often says that it could be approved by the end of October in hopes that it will help his reelection campaign, although most experts say that it would be a great achievement if a viable vaccine was available early in 2021.  

How has the President failed the American people in this crisis?  

In February he lied to the country by telling us that the corona virus was like the flu. He told the public that it was under control and that it would just go away as the weather got warmer, even though he knew that it would be a very serious problem, as reported in his recorded interviews that became a part of the recently published Bob Woodward book Rage.

When research determined that wearing a mask was the single most important thing we could do to protect us from the spread of the virus, the President said that he would not wear one regularly when he was in public. Leaders lead by both their actions and by example. His personal example of not wearing a mask was a terrible leadership example. Inexplicably, some Americans decided that wearing a mask was an intrusion on their personal freedom, instead of a patriotic duty to reduce the spread of the virus. This reaction to wearing masks has increased the infection and death rates and makes the opening of the economy and schools much riskier.

It seems logical that you must control the virus to fully open the economy.  That’s not what has been done. Several southern states responded to the President’s demand to open the economy in their states sooner rather than later. For example:

  • Governor Abbot of Texas allowed the bars and restaurants to open two weeks before Memorial Day creating a big uptick in infections in his state by the middle of June. 
  • Governor DeSantis of Florida said that he was going to keep health clubs open because people who go to them are physically active and healthy.  Members of health clubs got sick.
  • Governor Parson of Missouri announce some time ago that he decided that he did not believe in masks. This week it was announced that he and his wife both have the virus. 
  • Governor Kemp of Georgia was opposed to requiring people to wear masks. When the mayor of Atlanta required everyone in her city wear a mask, the Governor sued her to end the requirement. 
  • In June in Georgia a summer camp applied to open. The state required that the camp counselors wear masks however the campers did not have to wear them.  Everyone who attended the camp had to be tested within two weeks of attending the camp to prevent the spread of the virus. Campers were allowed to cheer and sing in groups.  The camp was cleaned regularly and they tried to practice social distancing. Within two weeks they had a corona virus outbreak among the campers and staff. Six hundred campers were tested and local newspapers were able to get the results of more than 350 of the kids. Seventy-six percent of them had the virus and the camp closed. In contrast a day camp for kids operated for seven weeks on Long Island in New York. The campers work masks and practiced social distancing.  No one who attended the camp got the virus.  

The President does not support social distancing. He continues to hold public events with supporters in large crowds and even had a Republican convention event on the lawn of the White House with at least 1,500 people crowded into that space without masks. Attendees at these events do not practice social distancing and generally do not wear masks. These events expand the community spread of the virus. This summer he pressed for less testing when the health experts wanted more because he said that the more we test the more viral infections would be found. (Actually, more testing is required to support contact efforts and to reduce community spread.) The president wanted to keep the reported infection rate as low as possible for political reasons..

The President has said that the virus does not make children really sick, and that for them it’s just a mild cold – if they have any symptoms at all. He discounted the Kawasaki syndrome symptoms that a small percentage of children get from the virus. He also has pressed for the reopening of schools with normal instruction schedules throughout the nation without considering the infection rates in the local school districts in each state. 

For example, Governor DeSantis of Florida wanted all of his districts to open with a normal five day a week schedule or he would withhold their school aid. The Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, filed a lawsuit against state officials, saying a return to classrooms at the scheduled opening of the schools would be unsafe and irresponsible. One of the smaller counties in his state had an infection rate over 20% and they opened because they needed their aid to operate. 

What has happened since schools around the nation have begun opening? Over the last three weeks more than 73,000 infections have been reported for school age children. A number of districts that opened have gone back to virtual instruction to slow the infection rate. There are 4 million teachers in America and 25% of them have preexisting conditions. The call to return to school has caused some experienced teachers to take early retirement or simply to resign to protect their health. As colleges and universities reopened over the last few weeks, 50,000 students became infected with the virus. While the CDC recommends that they stay on campus to be isolated from others, some schools have sent their “healthy” students home. It is likely that in some cases they are asymptomatic and are bringing the virus home to their families.

Clearly there is great interest in opening our economy, getting kids back in school and defeating the pandemic virus. Accomplishing these important societal goals are not mutually exclusive. Many other nations have been much more successful than the United States in meeting these goals. Commentators and journalists have frequently pointed out the leading indicators of our nation’s lack of success in fighting the pandemic by saying that we have less than 5% of the world’s population and more than 20% of the world’s coronavirus deaths. To reduce unemployment, to get our economy back on track and to open schools safely our leaders need to trust and follow the scientific advice that is readily available to them. In early September a New York Times article reported that if our nation responded more rapidly and embraced the need to wear masks and follow the hygiene guidelines we could have saved 148,000 lives!

We are where we are today because our President and many southern governors ignored science. However, the science did not go away and the virus spread throughout their states.  public health officials at the World Health Organization have warned us that a second peak could be coming this fall and early winter. In the United States we had a “mini” peak this summer because many states were encouraged to open too early. We are headed for another peak based on the way we have opened our schools and colleges. In addition, the World Health Organization warns of the coming flu season. 

It is time for Americans to wear masks. It is time for all of our elected leaders to respect and follow the science to stabilize our economy as some of the governors have done in Northeast states. It’s time for all school districts across the country to follow the science as many of them have done to provide a safe approach to educating children based on the pandemic data for their states and local communities. If elected leaders who have ignored the science of the pandemic continue to do so it will be a very long time before our nation minimizes the coronavirus pandemic in our country. Their lack of attention to the science of this critically important public health issue will needlessly infect and kill many more Americans. Ignoring science will not make it go away.

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