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The False Sense That We’ve Beaten COVID-19

Some think the rollout of vaccines means we've turned the corner, but things are likely to get worse before they get better. Public officials have a role, and messaging is more important than ever.

A couple walk past a mask sign near a beach.
A couple walk past a mask sign in Huntington Beach, California. (Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
I received three calls from a former employee whose wife is a medical doctor in metropolitan Atlanta. I missed each call but assumed he was calling to discuss the Georgia U.S. Senate runoffs. No, he told me when I called back. He wanted to give my wife and me a heads-up about just how bad the coronavirus pandemic had turned in Georgia, based on his wife's assessment from the front lines of the battle against the virus.

The fact that two vaccines have been approved and are now being distributed, though haphazardly at times, has given many a false sense of security that the pandemic is over, or at least beginning to fade. But the reality is that the next two months could be our deadliest to date, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci and other experts. What really is important and not emphasized enough is that businesses and residents must take more personal responsibility at this critical stage of the virus to curb its spread until many millions more are vaccinated.

The media have focused primarily on the responses to COVID-19 by public officials, but government leaders can only be as effective as citizens will allow them to be. Certainly there are conscientious citizens who take the virus seriously and do everything within their means to keep themselves and others safe. But there are too many who do not.

A case in point is when I set out to buy tires for my wife's and my bicycles during the holidays. Upon arrival at our Atlanta bike shop, I read a sign attached to the door requiring customers to wear face masks and to socially distance. Once I entered, I saw that the salesperson who greeted me was wearing a mask, but the techs who worked in the maintenance area in the back were not. For a variety of reasons, the techs kept coming into the sales area unmasked and apparently oblivious to the reality that they, if infected themselves, could spread their infection to others. I felt exposed and vulnerable inside the store.

Afterward, when I called the shop to complain about the lack of mask-wearing, the woman who answered told me that employees are supposed to wear them when interacting with customers but don't have to when no one is in the store. Further, she assured me that no disrespect was intended by the unmasked employees. This "essential worker," and by implication the management too, seemed to have had little if any appreciation of the public-health consequences of their unenforced policy.

This example illustrates the complexity associated with reopening in the middle of a pandemic, and it shows that unless business owners, employees and consumers collectively agree to adhere to sound policies on containing the virus, there is very little that can be done to curb its rise.

My experience in the bike shop occurred around the time the Atlanta Journal-Constitution was reporting that Georgia was experiencing a third wave of the virus and that this one appeared to be worse than the previous two. This situation was so bad that in anticipation of the strain on hospitals the state had reopened the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta as a makeshift hospital. Georgia is not alone, of course. Even as vaccines are beginning to be administered, the pandemic is surging in every region, with thousands of deaths and hundreds of thousands of cases being reported every day across the nation.

While stricter enforcement may work in some cases, in others better coordinated messaging may help. My daughter remembers from a couple decades back the "don't be a litterbug" public-service announcements. And certainly there is much to learn from the Georgia runoff elections for the U.S. Senate where, after being saturated with phone calls, attractive direct-mail pieces and personal visits to homes by canvassers, the significance of the runoff elections was impressed upon voters, who turned out in numbers heavier than many had expected.

This is where elected leaders and other public officials have a critical role. They should embark on a similar campaign to create mass public awareness of the dangers that lie ahead with the coronavirus as we await the mass distribution of the vaccines. Health and government officials at all levels should work with the private sector to blitz the airwaves and social media with a campaign that promotes the continuing essentiality of mask wearing, social distancing and hand washing — and the all-important role of citizen engagement.

But as we embark upon a new year and demand more in the way of accountability from public officials, let us be more responsible and accountable in fighting this virus ourselves.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.


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