Once again, a senior elected official in our county has put forth opinions about COVID-19 that compel a response. I don’t know Commissioner Eric Bouchat, and I bear him no ill will, but his column on July 14 contains such an excess of ignorant and dangerous misinformation that it requires public rebuttal.
His entire argument rests on the libertarian fantasy, ungrounded in practical or political reality, that individual rights are preeminent, and that “your rights stop where everyone else’s begin.” That may sound good on a bumper sticker, like Reese Bobby’s saying from “Talladega Nights” — “If you ain’t first, you’re last” — but it makes no sense in the real world. There are plenty of situations where individual rights are in direct conflict, and to resolve those conflicts we have laws and regulations, enforced through community consensus and good government.
The rest of the column gets the facts and causes of illness from COVID-19 exactly backward, or just plain wrong. For example, Commissioner Bouchat states, “If you are a healthy adult with no pre-existing conditions you are more likely to die of a list of deaths other than COVID-19.”
This is true in Carroll County BECAUSE everyone is wearing masks, not in spite of it. We have a low case rate and mortality here because everyone is generally compliant with masks and social distancing. This is like arguing, “We don’t need fire departments, because we don’t have that many deaths from house fires,” or " We don’t need traffic lights because we don’t have that many fatalities at busy intersections.” The causality is exactly backward. The very high excess mortality (total deaths minus expected deaths from all other causes) in communities ravaged by COVID-19 is further proof that not implementing masks and social distancing kills people.
He then asserts, “You, the unhealthy people, are the spreaders of the virus — not the healthy.” This statement is completely wrong, and is evidence of either profound ignorance of our current situation, or the baleful influence of the disinformation campaigns holding sway over right-wing media. A recent study in the medical journal “Emerging Infectious Diseases” summarizes recent data (citation below) from over 20 different studies illustrating the challenge of asymptomatic spread of the virus from otherwise healthy people under the right circumstances.
Commissioner Bouchat provides a variety of anecdotes from his personal life that are intended to somehow bolster his argument. His judgments about other people’s moral failings are no substitute for scientifically collected and analyzed data when making public health policy.
He closes his column by stating “…the likelihood of a completely effective vaccine or cure for this virus is next to zero, so get used to this being with us, just like the flu.” It’s hard to know where to begin with this one. What’s most striking to me is the defeatism and call to despair, that while the rest of the developed world solves the problem of the pandemic, we should resign ourselves to the deaths of friends, family and co-workers that would happen if we just gave up, and all the economic devastation that would cause. It’s also just factually wrong. Effective therapies (not fake ones touted on social media and Fox News) are advancing quickly, and, though not imminent, a vaccine will very likely be available sometime next year. Arguing against the expertise, innovation, and entrepreneurial spirit of our biomedical and pharmaceutical industries to fight against the pandemic sounds downright unpatriotic.
And then there’s the “just like the flu” misinformation, which gets a lot of airplay on right-wing media. Though there are some similarities common to many viral respiratory infections, COVID-19 is not “just like” the flu. No one has any immunity to it, unlike the flu. For many people, it’s a two-to-three-week illness, unlike the flu. We have no vaccine yet for COVID-19, unlike the flu. For the unlucky ones, it can also cause long-term disability, unlike the flu. And we still don’t know many important details of how the virus causes illness and is spread, unlike the flu.
Commissioner Bouchat is a leader of our county government. His words and opinions matter, because he oversees not only our Carroll County Health Department, which works overtime along with state agencies to keep us safe and healthy, but he also is directly responsible for the health of the hundreds of county government employees, and ancillary agencies like Carroll County Public Schools, Carroll Community College and the Sheriff’s Office. His irresponsible statements and dangerously ignorant opinions are a direct threat to the health and well-being of the county.
Dr. Robert Wack writes from Westminster. He can be reached at Robert.firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Citation: Furukawa NW, Brooks JT, Sobel J. “Evidence Supporting Transmission of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 While Presymptomatic or Asymptomatic.” Emerg Infect Dis. 2020 July. https://doi.org/10.3201/eid2607.201595)