As the COVID-19 threat continues to loom large, the state Health Department issues daily reports updating the count of coronavirus-related deaths and new infection rates. And numerous public health restrictions and protocols have been imposed since mid-March.
Even so, the longer the pandemic persists, the more likely we’ll see lapses: people forgetting about or disregarding “new normal” protocols, such as mask-wearing, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s director has touted as currently our most effective tool against infection.
The need for strict vigilance was underscored last week, when President Donald Trump was stricken with the virus. If infection can spread into the inner circle at the White House, where safeguards and medical expertise are elite, surely it can reach into our homes here in the islands.
In recent months, as widespread mask-wearing — here and elsewhere — served as a reminder that the virus is still out there, Trump failed to set a needed example for the country by regularly wearing one himself. And as recently as during last week’s first presidential debate, he mocked the precaution.
“I don’t wear masks like him,” Trump said of the Democratic nominee, Joe Biden. “Every time you see him, he’s got a mask. He could be speaking 200 feet away from me, and he shows up with the biggest mask I’ve ever seen.”
While we wish President Trump a speedy recovery, we also urge an immediate turnaround to deliver clear, evidence-based public health messaging. That includes masking, as well as avoiding mass gatherings with people in close proximity.
Researchers have learned a lot about how the virus spreads — often in the air in small particles, like aerosols — and what we can do to stop it. While there’s ample evidence showing that masks prevent the wearer from spreading the virus to others, there’s also evidence surfacing that masks protect the wearer from being infected. According to one study, a wearer’s risk can be reduced by 65%.
On Friday, Trump as taken to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to undergo tests after being injected with an experimental antibody cocktail at the White House. Such attentive care is a rarity, of course. Moreover, in Hawaii, upwards of 40,000 residents have lost their private health insurance coverage — largely because of job losses due to virus-related shutdowns — and have been forced to go on government plans, such as Medicaid or Med-Quest.
While a serious presidential illness is itself an issue of national concern under ordinary circumstances, this one comes one anxious month out from Election Day, casting into limbo two remaining presidential debates, campaign rallies and other events.
Further, if Trump is unable to tend to his White House duties, under the 25th Amendment, there could be a temporary transfer of powers to Vice President Mike Pence. The transfer was last used in 2002 and 2007, when President George W. Bush temporarily turned over power to Vice President Dick Cheney during colonoscopies.
In addition to addressing the importance of mask-wearing and physical distancing, the 74-year-old president’s COVID-19 case also spotlights age-related vulnerability. While COVID-19 is now known to be much deadlier than the ordinary flu, most people infected by it recover, especially if there is no underlying condition. However, the threat increases with age.
The virus that has so far killed more than 205,000 Americans; and 8 out of every 10 deaths attributed to it in the United States have been among those in the 65-and-older bracket, according to national news reports.
In the absence of a vaccine and disease treatment, our COVID-fighting toolbox is limited to face masks, hand-washing, physical distancing and contact tracing. To discourage use of any of these protective tactics is a public disservice.