Public health is your health and my health – October 3, 2020

The president, the first lady and Hope Hicks have all tested positive for COVID-19. There is no surprise here. Optional masks, no social distancing and attending indoor mass gatherings have consequences. These public health strategies work, even if they are sometimes controversial.

They are not alone. What do seat belts, vaccinations of schoolchildren and motorcycle helmets have in common? They are all required by law, with some exceptions. These health and safety measures are based upon safety tests, epidemiology and advice from safety experts.

Like wearing masks or social distancing, these health and safety laws have met with public resistance. Personal freedom and infringement upon individual rights are cited by citizens opposing mandated health and safety policies. Motor vehicle mortality rates have plummeted since federal law requires their use. Many childhood illnesses such as measles, mumps and whooping cough no longer occur at epidemic levels in our country because of the vaccinations of schoolchildren.

The first universal motorcycle helmet law was enacted in 1966. As of 1975, 47 states and Washington, D.C., had universal helmet laws. After federal penalties were eliminated, half of the states repealed their laws. A review of 61 studies by the Cochrane Collaboration found helmets to reduce mortality by 42 percent and head injuries by 69 percent in motorcycle accidents. Currently, only 22 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have universal motorcycle helmet laws.

Costs to the health care system and society are enormous when personal freedom trumps proven safety equipment and effective, preventive medical intervention. As a physician with a graduate degree in public health and five years of experience working in a county hospital emergency room, I bring a certain perspective to the current debate over the use of facial masks during the coronavirus pandemic. My advice is quite simple: Wear the mask. In my public health training, we were taught, “Plan for the worst and hope for the best.” Unfortunately, our country’s response to a highly contagious virus has been in large part to support personal freedom over implementing sound health policy. Our country leads the world in COVID-19 deaths, hospitalizations and infection rates. Is wearing a mask too much to ask of Americans?

A Washington Post article published in The New Mexican (“CDC: Nearly 11,000 exposed on airplanes,” Sept. 21) cites an investigation of 1,600 passengers by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention where almost 11,000 people were potentially exposed to COVID-19. The article reports that a public citizen called upon the Department of Transportation to mandate mask-wearing on planes. Currently, mask-wearing is at the discretion of airlines or individual passengers. Any wonder why America leads the world in COVID-19 cases?

Aside from misinformation about the virus and inconsistent policy across levels of government, leadership at the highest level hasn’t modeled mask-wearing, social distancing and avoidance of large gatherings. Response to a pandemic should not be politicized.

To perhaps better understand why Americans have responded as we have to this pandemic, the blame cannot be directed solely toward the president and his administration. We all have responsibility to protect our fellow citizens. Minors and young adults have never seen a person acutely infected with measles, much less polio or smallpox. Americans have heard of AIDS but often don’t know anyone who died of that disease. Ebola devastated areas of Africa, yet we were spared witnessing fellow humans bleeding to death. If more Americans experienced the havoc viruses can bring to an individual or a community, we’d gladly wear a mask. Residents of Santa Fe and elsewhere in America are well advised to follow the advice of doctors, epidemiologists and public health experts. It’s not complicated if we work together and respect this elegant, deadly coronavirus.

Dr. Bob Larsen has devoted his career to evaluation and treatment of injured workers with serious trauma. His book, Wounded Workers: Tales of a Working Man’s Shrink, is scheduled for publication in early 2021. He and his wife live in Santa Fe.

 This commentary from Dr. Bob also appeared in the “Santa Fe New Mexican” on October 3, 2020  

Leave a Comment