Masks July 2

A bicyclist wears a mask while riding along East Orange Street in Lancaster city Thursday, July 2, 2020. Widespread mask-wearing, social distancing and science are our best weapons against COVID-19.

THE ISSUE

COVID-19 arrived in Lancaster County — or at least was confirmed to have arrived — on March 18. Since then, the county has seen 7,315 confirmed cases of the infectious disease caused by the novel coronavirus and 451 deaths as of Friday, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health. The United States has seen more than 6.6 million cases and, as of Friday, nearly 198,000 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. These have been six difficult months, with Lancaster County’s unemployment rate peaking during the pandemic at 15.2% in April and exceeding 11% for four consecutive months through July; small businesses closing around the county; and schools struggling to offer in-person instruction.

At some point in our early lives, we learn the difference between luxuries and necessities: what we want to have versus what we need to have.

Maybe this happens when, as teenagers, we ask for an expensive item of clothing when what we really need is a graphing calculator for school. Or when we’re faced with the choice of buying a pricey pair of sneakers or a regular pair of sneakers that would leave us with money for gas.

In these small moments, we learn to figure out our priorities. To decide what matters most.

Over these past surreal and worrying six months, we’ve wondered at the priorities set by elected officials.

And we don’t think it’s too late to ask: What should our priorities be to help us get through the next months of this pandemic?

At least nine Lancaster County school districts have reported COVID-19 cases. Many county students are learning online, from home, because their parents worry about them becoming infected at school.

Meanwhile, some state lawmakers seem more concerned about fans being able to attend high school sporting events.

And while COVID-19 cases climb at colleges such as Millersville University, the Big Ten Conference — which includes Penn State — decided last week that its football teams should play this fall, after all.

We love sports as much as anyone. But what are our priorities? Let’s consider the state of play.

Fall football

According to ESPN, the “Penn State athletic department announced Wednesday that 50 student-athletes tested positive for COVID-19 in its latest round of testing, which included 859 total tests. ... The results, which included tests from Sept. 5-11, were released on the same day the Big Ten announced it would begin its football season on Oct. 24, after being delayed by concerns related to the pandemic. Penn State did not provide a breakdown of athletes impacted by their sport.”

USA Today sports columnist Christine Brennan wrote this last week: “Just as the Big Ten was looking smarter by the day as COVID-19 outbreaks popped up at Michigan State, Wisconsin and Maryland while other conferences playing football announced COVID-related postponements and soaring cases, the league’s presidents reversed themselves and decided to steer their schools and their football programs right into the teeth of what are predicted to be some of the worst days of the pandemic in October and November.”

The medical journal JAMA Cardiology reported Sept. 11 that four of 26 Ohio State University student-athletes — who had tested positive for coronavirus but experienced no or mild symptoms of the disease — showed signs of myocarditis, inflammation of the heart muscle. The imaging of eight other student-athletes showed “cellular damage or swelling that could not be linked definitively to the condition,” the website TheScientist noted.

A German study — published in JAMA Cardiology in July — found that 60 of 100 patients who had recovered from COVID-19 were found to have signs of myocarditis; there were structural changes in the hearts of 78 patients.

But because we want to watch fall football, we’re asking unpaid student-athletes to take chances with their long-term cardiac health.

Priorities.

‘Taking its toll’

In last week’s Sunday edition, LNP | LancasterOnline’s Chad Umble reported on the closure of the popular Lancaster restaurant Jethro’s — one of at least 20 Lancaster County eateries that have announced permanent closures since March.

With indoor capacity limits being raised just to 50% this week, and the end of outdoor dining season approaching, “brutal financial realities have prompted” some restaurant owners “to call it quits, a decision experts say will likely become more common,” Umble reported.

There “is good reason to believe restaurant closures across the county have yet to hit a peak,” Umble wrote. “Numbers could rise well above 100 as seating capacity restrictions choke revenue and financial assistance for small businesses dries up. Uncertainty caused by the pandemic is also taking its toll as investors who might have otherwise jumped at the chance to purchase a restaurant hold back from making deals.”

These are not just restaurants. These are community gathering places. These — like other small businesses suffering now, too — are people’s livelihoods.

Gov. Tom Wolf didn’t help matters when, last spring, his administration launched a business waiver program that seemed to pick winners and losers among businesses without a fair, transparent review process — and with no explanation of the metrics used to determine which businesses were deemed essential and which had to close. Given the stakes, it’s no wonder that anger persists.

But it’s not Wolf’s fault that here we are, six months into the pandemic, facing the prospect of a terrible autumn and winter, with influenza soon to converge with COVID-19 to ramp up the potential peril.

Politics over health

We have prioritized sports over schooling. We have prioritized politics over common sense.

And, as we learned earlier this month from journalist Bob Woodward, the president prioritized his reelection chances over informing the American public in February of the seriousness of what we were about to face.

President Donald Trump since has claimed that he didn’t want to “create panic” — that from the man who has sought to whip up fear about everything from migrant caravans to mail-in voting.

“It goes through air, Bob,” Trump said in an interview with Woodward on Feb. 7. “That’s always tougher than the touch. You know, the touch, you don’t have to touch things. Right? But the air, you just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed. And so that’s a very tricky one. That’s a very delicate one. It’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flus. ... This is deadly stuff.”

Indeed, he told Woodward, COVID-19 is five times deadlier than the flu.

How much better might things be now if the president prioritized telling Americans the truth in February?

How much better off would we be had the president enthusiastically embraced mask-wearing? If he had encouraged his supporters to embrace the simplest, least expensive, most effective tool we have in combating the spread of the novel coronavirus?

Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Wednesday that masks are “the most important, powerful public health tool we have,” and “we have clear scientific evidence they work.”

He said if all Americans wore face coverings in the next six to 12 weeks, we could “bring this pandemic under control.”

Holding up a face mask as he testified before a Senate committee, Redfield said: “I might even go so far as to say that this face mask is more guaranteed to protect me against COVID than when I take a COVID vaccine.”

Redfield’s emphasis on masks was subsequently contradicted by the president, who is banking on a vaccine to help him win election.

We don’t have a vaccine yet. But we do have cloth face masks.

COVID-19 deaths could be reduced significantly if more Americans wore face masks, according to projections issued Sept. 11 by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

The institute projects that the daily death rate in the U.S. will reach nearly 3,000 a day in December — for a projected total of 415,090 by Jan. 1.

“Increasing mask use remains an extraordinary opportunity for the United States,” the institute said. “Increasing mask use to the levels seen in Singapore would decrease the cumulative U.S. death toll to 298,589, or 116,501 lives saved.”

We’ve been through six terrible months already.

Let’s reset our priorities so we can get through the next six months with fewer lives lost and more livelihoods saved. And let’s demand that our leaders get their priorities right, too.