As progress continues with the Biden-Harris administration’s vaccine effort, there’s much to be hopeful about: cases numbers have been driven down substantially from their January high, vaccination rates are among the fastest in the world and hospitalizations due to COVID-19 have plummeted. These facts alone have been enough to buoy the spirits of countless citizens exhausted by the mental and physical toll the past year has caused.
But although we can now see the light at the end of the tunnel, we aren’t there yet. Reckless and premature rollbacks in states like Texas and Mississippi — and soon to be others — threaten to erode the hard-won progress we’ve made and create pockets of potential new infections. As we face the growing threat of alarming virus variants, the best tools we still have in the race to vaccinate a majority of Americans continue to be mask-wearing and physical distancing.
Here’s why. Although cases have dropped significantly around the country, the outbreak in Texas is as bad as it was this summer. On July 2, Texas recorded over 7,915 cases and 44 deaths — an alarming figure that led Gov. Greg Abbot (R) to finally institute a state-wide mask mandate. Yet on the same day that he announced the mask mandate was ending, there were also 7,747 cases and some 271 deaths.
And the current outbreak in Texas is still worsening. Cases in the Lone Star state are up 27 percent from the end of February to early March, while deaths remain alarmingly high: the seven-day average death rate so far in March has been 216 — or about a quarter of all deaths in the U.S.
The situation in Mississippi, which also rolled back most of its pandemic restrictions, is hardly better. New cases have increased 62 percent from late February to early March, marking the biggest increase of any state. Mississippi is also marred with some of the worst health disparities linked to COVID-19, putting at risk vulnerable and marginalized populations. Although Native Americans make up less than 1 percent of Mississippi’s population, they constitute an overwhelming percentage of both COVID-19 cases and deaths. According to the COVID Tracking Project and Boston University, Native Americans contract the coronavirus at a rate twice as high as Black people in the state, and they face a mortality rate that is nearly four times the rate of other groups in the state.
There are many reasons why some governors might be tempted to roll back public health guidelines — none of them good reasons. Political considerations, a misinterpretation of what “people want” or rejection of science may drive COVID-19 policy recklessness. Whatever the reasons, these high level decisions entail an imposed risk that deserves clarification.
Here’s how to think about “risk taking.” An individual may decide to engage in risky behavior that has minimal impact on others. A young person decides to go freestyle cliff climbing, that is, vertical rock walls without ropes. Other than grieving survivors, that person is risking their life without endangering others.
Another individual chooses to drive at high speeds after drinking alcohol. That person, as well, is taking an extreme risk — but also puts other innocent lives at extreme risk. That is a higher level of risk that is both illegal and immoral.
But what about the governor who insists upon a policy that puts the lives of millions of others at risk, perhaps while involving little or no risk for the politician on a personal level? This is in effect what a government order does by rescinding mask wearing and social distancing rules in the middle of a still highly contagious, deadly outbreak. Who will be accountable if the ill-conceived public health rollbacks result in a new wave of COVID-19 cases and fatalities?
Every credible scientific and public health expert is promoting expanding the imposition of public health guidelines, not the proposed relaxations. That’s because the formula for stopping the spread and devastation boils down to three simple strategies:
First, getting between 70 to 90 percent of us vaccinated as soon as possible. Second, developing a simple oral, out-patient medication to treat early manifestations of COVID-19. And, third sustaining the public health guidelines that will significantly control the spread of the virus.
Defiance of efforts to control the pandemic by rogue governors with agendas other than protecting the public’s health is disappointing in the extreme. Voters need to hold them accountable. And the federal government should use all available means to incentivize every state to sustain the public health strategies that we know work — and will save lives.
Dr. Irwin Redlener is the founding director, National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute as well as a senior research scholar. He is also a public health analyst for NBC/MSNBC and the author of “Americans at Risk: Why We’re Not Prepared for Megadisasters and What We Can Do Now,” and “The Future of Us: What the Dreams of Children Mean for 21st Century America.” @IrwinRedlenerMD. Sean Hansen is a staff associate at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, where he focuses on issues of COVID-19 and children in disaster. @sean__hansen.