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Harford health officer: Should I resign for giving mask medical advice to marching band? | COMMENTARY

The C. Milton Wright H.S. Band of Harford County marches along Pratt Street during the annual Columbus Day parade in this 2018 photo
The C. Milton Wright H.S. Band of Harford County marches along Pratt Street during the annual Columbus Day parade in this 2018 photo (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

Last week a local politician asked me to resign as health officer because I had given my best advice on how to protect a school marching band during a 4th of July parade. Horns and woodwinds expel aerosols much farther than breathing and speaking, so even an outdoor performance with an infected musician could spread COVID-19 to other players and to the crowd. The very best option to control disease would be to include only fully vaccinated students, because vaccines are now known to dramatically reduce the chance of spreading the virus. Yet, as a pediatrician and father of a former “bandy,” I knew that excluding unvaxxed children would deny them a lifetime highlight and important social recognition. Fortunately, there has been substantial research on aerosols and instruments that support asking unvaccinated players to place bell covers over their instruments to protect others and to just wear masks with mouth slits to protect themselves. Vaccinated players would not need masks and bell covers to prevent disease, but they could still opt-in. This is the best medical advice I could offer, so I offered it. Should I resign?

Americans now live in a society that is half vaccinated, yet we long to be unified. We believe in ending discrimination, yet a lethal virus discriminates: It selectively hunts and sickens the unvaccinated. Some are unvaccinated because of age limits or medical conditions like allergies. Most of the unvaccinated made a personal choice after doing the best they could to sort through facts, opinions and past experiences. Others are still deliberating. All of the unvaccinated face heightened risk and are vulnerable.

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It’s time to apply the lessons of 2020 to 2021 — people who are vulnerable need all of us to stand by them and share the work of social protection. When we first noticed that COVID-19 was selectively sickening communities of color as well as front line service workers, we worked collectively to increase access to protective equipment and mitigation policies. Inaction was not an option. Now that the face of COVID vulnerability has changed, the collective approach to embrace and protect the vulnerable is still the best. To stand smug and idle in judgment of others’ agonizing personal choices is not the path to unity. The choice to be unvaccinated remains legal, and the debate about the ethics of mandates is in its earliest stages. When that debate begins in earnest, it must be launched in a spirit of respect and not stigma. For the next several months there is an urgent need to use our respect for each other to start harm reduction measures to protect those now vulnerable.

The most important step to take is to normalize face masks. What many of us learned from wearing them is how well they work to stop more than just COVID-19 but colds, flu, bronchitis and other respiratory infections. People in front-line professions and those with preexisting conditions like asthma and COPD will benefit long after COVID-19 is gone from wearing masks. Face masks are a healthy personal choice that nobody should ever have to explain, especially in 2021. For the sake of civility, we must stop judging each other about our vaccine status. Shame and stigma masquerade as good ways to change behavior, but they are corrosive to relationships and shut people down. Respect for people regardless of their health choices is the best way to work together to reduce harm. I chose to be vaccinated, and, as much as I loathe “the damn mask,” I have continued to wear one in public indoor spaces, both for protection against other viruses, but also to help keep mask-wearing normal and make it less awkward for unvaccinated people to do likewise. I applaud all health care workers for their continued open doors and phone lines where there is a respectful nonjudgmental willingness to take questions about vaccines and COVID control. We cannot afford to politicize the work they do. This summer when you wave your flag at the school band on Independence Day, wave to celebrate and respect their diversity. Some will be vaccinated some will not be. All deserve to be cherished and protected.

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Dr. David Bishai is the health officer of Harford County; he can be reached at hchd.vax@maryland.gov.

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