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Blubaugh: Rising COVID-19 numbers dispiriting, but we’d be much worse off without mitigation measures | COMMENTARY

Each day seems to bring dispiriting data about COVID-19. It wasn’t long ago many seemed to think we had beaten the coronavirus and it was time to move full speed ahead back to normalcy.

Now we’re staring at numbers of new cases in Carroll County, in Maryland and throughout the country we never thought we’d see with no reason to expect those numbers are going to stop going up.

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For two weeks in a row, Carroll has set new highs in terms of community cases. The 320 or so new community cases we saw in the first 13 days of November are more than we saw in May and June combined. More than we saw in all of July or August when we were worried about a second wave.

And it’s happening even as elected officials are complimenting the majority of citizens and business for following mitigation strategies such as mask wearing and social distancing. The escalating numbers amid widespread compliance are causing many to question why we should bother.

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“I’m puzzled by these spikes when we’ve been in this type of policy for what, eight, nine months now and we keep doubling down and it doesn’t seem to be helping,” Commissioner Eric Bouchat, R-District 4, said during Thursday’s Board of County Commissioners meeting. "It seems like we’re just desperately groping around because if any of these policies truly worked over the last nine months we wouldn’t be in this present situation. ...

“We haven’t achieved any success. These policies haven’t produced any measurable success or movement that we’re hoping for.”

Measurable success is a tough one. There’s plenty of data showing how many people have contracted COVID-19 and even when, where and why. It’s more difficult to figure out how many people haven’t because of their actions.

How many have had conversations with asymptomatic or presymptomatic members of the community but were saved from transmission by a mask? How many were standing in line next to someone who sneezed, but weren’t infected because they were 6 feet away rather than 2? How many who chose not to attend a party didn’t come down with it the way many of their friends did?

And, how many of them, had they not practiced mitigation measures, would have subsequently passed COVID-19 on to friends and family members, who may, in turn, have done the same?

County Health Officer Ed Singer acknowledged to Bouchat and the other commissioners Thursday that hard data is hard to come by.

“The tough thing in public health is trying to figure out, if we didn’t put these mitigation measures in effect, how much worse would things be?” he said. "The only thing I can say, if you compare us in Maryland to what happened in other states throughout the summer, our numbers were far better than just about any place else in the country for a very long time. And Carroll County’s numbers were far better than most jurisdictions in the state of Maryland. ...

“It’s very difficult to measure the impact of these mitigation measures that we have in place. [But] it is having an impact and there is some data that supports that.”

Bouchat thinks too many people are relying just on masks to prevent the spread. He’s probably right. He also stresses limiting exposure to people, particularly those in high-risk categories. He’s definitely right about that.

But saying spiking numbers mean mitigation measures aren’t working? No, it’s more likely the opposite is true.

Numbers are spiking because of people failing to follow said measures, or picking and choosing which ones to adhere to. By forgetting masks. By attending social gatherings. By traveling. By assuming things were headed back to normal.

As Commissioner Richard Weaver, R-District 2, said Thursday, “We can’t work our way out of this on hope.”

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He, too, is right. But that doesn’t mean we should stop remaining hopeful that we will get through this.

We can’t lose hope. But, more important, we can’t lose sight of what science tells us needs to be done. As bad as the numbers are, they can get worse. Much worse.

Bob Blubaugh is the editor of the Carroll County Times. His column appears Sundays. Email him at bob.blubaugh@carrollcountytimes.com.

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