Although I have written about this recently, wearing a mask, social distancing and testing take on a new urgency because COVID-19 infections are surging nationally, in Florida, and even here in Indian River County. If you recall, back on March 19 there were no coronavirus cases in Indian River County. We were doing so well compared to the rest of Florida and the nation. Most local folks were voluntarily staying home, most public places and businesses were closed, and if you ventured out in public, most of us wore face masks and practiced social distancing.
Now we have exceeded 500 cases of the COVID-19 coronavirus locally, two-thirds of them in the last four weeks since Memorial Day. So what happened?
Too much testing?
That is absurd. Only 5.5 percent of Indian River County residents have been tested, so we are light years away from how many people might be carrying the virus. Some say testing is only good for telling you if you have the virus at that particular moment. True, but irrelevant. I would be happy to know how many of us have the virus on a particular day. Yes, we would probably have many more cases, but the fact is, we have those cases anyway – we just do not know who or where they are!
Too many people gathering in stores, parks, beaches, etc?
Clearly, the spike in positive infections here and in the state are directly related to the swarms of people who saw Memorial Day weekend as a signal that life had returned to normal. How can life return to normal when there is no vaccine, no cure and limited testing of the population?
Crowding the beach and bars does not tell us life is back to normal. It tells us we are in serious danger. The two most often repeated public health warnings since the pandemic started was to wear masks and practice social distancing. Since late May it seems most people are doing neither.
I went to a restaurant on Monday and was shocked to see not one employee wearing a mask (I trust that has been corrected). If you go to Publix, employees all wear masks, but not all the customers. As County Commissioner Bob Solari put it so well at Tuesday’s meeting, you should stay away from people not wearing masks. “If under normal circumstances you wouldn’t approach a person acting like a jerk, don’t approach a jerk not wearing a mask.”
Is the media blowing this out of proportion?
It is the media’s job to warn us of potential life-threatening situations. How many times have we been warned of a hurricane coming directly at us, only to have it change direction or lose strength before it hits. What is our reaction to the warnings every time? We buy hurricane supplies, board up the house, store extra food, prepare to evacuate. When the hurricane doesn’t hit as the media warned, do we go around saying the media blew everything out of proportion? No, we were thankful the hurricane did not hit us. Even if it did hit, as it did in 2004, we were prepared because the media provided all the information we needed to protect ourselves.
So why are we experiencing this huge spike in cases?
The big difference between hurricanes and this pandemic is that hurricanes aren’t political. We don’t have diametrically opposed points of view about the life-threatening potential of hurricanes. But depending on whose warnings you trust, health experts or politicians, people either take the safety precautions seriously or ignore them altogether. As a result, you have this huge spike in cases. the people who take those safety precautions seriously were not among the “maskless multitudes” since Memorial Day weekend, because they know better. The M-Ms probably make up the majority of new cases, but they also probably came in close contact to innocent bystanders, their relatives. Family members who have heeded the warnings and stayed home might be victims because someone in the household joined the M-Ms and brought the virus home with them.
What can history teach us?
So far, we in Indian River County have been largely spared from the grim statistics, but that doesn’t mean it will always be that way. As of today, over 3300 Floridians have died from this virus. So how does that compare to the number of deaths from other natural disasters? The 1900 Galveston, Texas hurricane is the worst ever because the city had not taken any of the precautions we know to take these days. Between six and ten thousand people lost their lives (the entire population of Galveston then was about 38,000). Second on the list of all time deaths due to natural disaster occurred in 1899 when a hurricane (tropical cyclone) that hit Puerto Rico and the US east coast cost 3389 deaths. The 1906 San Francisco earthquake killed 3000 plus.
That’s it – the entire list of natural disasters that cost more lives than this pandemic has cost in Florida alone! And the huge spike in positive cases this month will certainly cost more lives. So that would put us right behind the Galveston hurricane death toll of 6000-10000.
We don’t know how far behind it will end up, but keep this in mind: Those people did not die because of the hurricane – they died because they were unprepared for it. They had a legitimate excuse though. They did not know it was coming and did not know what to do when it came.
We know the pandemic is coming (it is here) and we know what to do about it. But too many people ignore what we know and prefer to act as if it isn’t going to happen. What does that say about them?