Orlando Sentinel: History should have taught us lessons on pandemic

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As the news spread across the country that Sheriff Billy Woods of Marion County had issued an order prohibiting any of his employees, as well as any public citizens entering the Sheriff’s Office, from wearing a mask, it left me scratching my head as to how we had gotten here.

That feeling was even more pronounced as the battle lines were drawn between the Biden/Harris camp, which favors uniform statewide laws mandating mask-wearing throughout the country as a matter of public health and safety, and the Trump/Pence camp, which apparently continues to question the irrefutable scientific data supporting the clear and convincing evidence that masks and social distancing are, in the absence of a treatment or vaccine, the most powerful weapons we currently have in the face of a pandemic spread through respiratory transmission.

I was under the impression that the mask/distancing debate had been waged and settled long ago.

In March 1918, a new strain of influenza was identified in roughly 100 soldiers at a Kansas army base. A week later, case numbers had increased five times over. That October, there were over 60,000 cases in California alone — 7,000 just in San Francisco. By the end of October, 120,000 deaths had occurred in the United States. That influenza, colloquially “flu,” was branded in the history books as the Spanish Flu.

That same month, then-mayor of San Francisco James Rolph mandated face coverings of at least four layers for his citizens. Other orders like Mayor Rolph’s spread throughout the country, with government officials reacting with fines and even jail time for those who violated the mandate. By mid-November, just one month later, influenza cases in San Francisco and elsewhere with mandatory protocols began to flatten.

Unfortunately, Mayor Rolph rescinded his mask mandate. Businesses began to reopen. Theaters and restaurants were packed with excited patrons looking to regain a sense of normalcy over their lives. Less than two weeks later, a second and much more deadly wave of influenza hit San Francisco and the rest of the country: the death toll climbed throughout the final months of 1918, with 245,000 Americans dead by the end of the year from the spread of influenza.

Sound familiar? History is nothing if not repetitive.

After our first case of COVID-19 appeared in Washington state on Jan. 21, numerous measures were taken to mitigate the spread of the virus, including declaring nationwide public health emergencies, restrictions on global air travel, as well as mandating stay-at-home orders and the wearing of masks in public for essential workers. Americans watched as geographic epicenters of COVID-19 cases shifted from China to Italy, followed by the United Kingdom, and inevitably to our nation’s own metropolitan centers including Seattle, New York, San Francisco and Miami.

Experts from WHO, the CDC, and the Federal Coronavirus Task Force spoke with one voice in calling for expanded testing for COVID-19 cases, aggressive contact tracing and protocols to mandate masks nationwide. Most of those same experts further advised that with those in place, stay-at-home orders could be relaxed and the economy could reopen safely.

The economy did indeed reopen, but with limited testing, sufficiently slow lab results as to make contact tracing meaningless, and without any consistent state, let alone national, protocol mandating masks. If history repeats itself, so too does science. In early May, as states trumped their reopening and the public joyously cooperated, a second wave of COVID-19 cases rocked the country. Weeks after reopening, states whose politics fell in line with the Trump/Pence camp (e.g. Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida) skyrocketed into the thousands of new positive COVID-19 cases each day, prompting a subsequent wave of hospitalizations, ICU overflows and respiratory intubations, now numbering 5.26 million cases and 167,000 deaths nationwide..

Florida — one of the first states to reopen, admittedly without a statewide insistence on rapid testing or mandatory masks — has set near-daily nationwide records in new COVID-19 cases, peaking on July 12 with over 15,000 positive cases and the national record for the most COVID-19 deaths reported in one day: 277 on Aug. 11. And yet, in the midst of nearly 600,000 cases and more than 10,000 deaths in Florida, we have a sheriff who specifically prohibits the wearing of masks and a governor who refuses to mandate them, following the lead of a president who mocks them.

How did we get here? The science was in place for 100 years. Every recognized expert was in agreement. And our very experience validated the reduction in cases when protocols were followed. And yet, we allowed political ambition, shallow principle and faux chest-thumping to hijack what could have been a triumphant national referendum on keeping our citizens safe.

Leadership matters. And a lack of it is perilous. We will get through this —together — but I hope we’ve learned our lesson.

Originally posted for the Orlando Sentinel.

Image source: www.businessinsider.com


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