It's up to us Don't wait on politicians for leadership on COVID-19

Only eight months after the first confirmed U.S. case of COVID-19, the breezy freedoms of life BC (Before COVID) seem like a dreamy childhood memory. We’re itching to end a national nightmare that has killed 219,000 Americans, infected 8.2 million of them, closed schools, cancelled sporting events, and disrupted the nation. African Americans have been hit especially hard.

The pandemic is not ending, however; nor will it, as long as Americans remain complacent, without the urgency that normally accompanies a national crisis. Until some Americans stop telling themselves it's over, they will eschew government-mandated masks, shamelessly complaining about fogged eyeglasses or other trivial inconveniences. Worse, for some people, refusing to mask-up constitutes a political statement. One of the insidious legacies of COVID-19 is the toxic insertion of politics into public health, which only science ought to inform.

Here and around the country, a lack of vigilance, ignorance, and a rush to return to business-as-usual have helped lead a third COVID resurgence, raising the horrifying specter of hundreds of thousands more dead Americans. More hopefully, a vaccine should emerge by mid-2021. Still, it probably won’t be accessible to all Americans until 2022.

Last weekend, Pennsylvania reported nearly 1,800 new cases, the pandemic’s third largest single-day caseload, and the largest since the peak of the first wave in early April. Pennsylvania has reported nearly 8,500 deaths.

Without an early, coordinated response from the federal government, state and local governments have had to fend for themselves. They’ve also fought among themselves for scarce medical resources, such as ventilators, respirators, and personal protective equipment for health care workers.

Meantime, a lust to return to normalcy has prompted short-sighted decisions at the local and state level that, ultimately, will prolong the pandemic and exacerbate the costs. A case-in-point is the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association’s decision in August to green-light fall sports, despite high rates of contagion among children and Gov. Tom Wolf’s considered recommendation to suspend sports until Jan. 1. Making public safety a second-tier priority will mean not only far more deaths, but also a protracted economic recovery.

President Trump has set the tone for denial and disinformation, minimizing the pandemic and the importance of masking-up. Heaping blame on the President, however, has become an extravagant and distracting national pastime. No law says the people have to follow the leader.

Ordinary Americans, without titles or offices, can think about COVID-19 rationally, and act responsibly. They should listen — not to politicians (unless they are epidemiologists) — but to doctors, medical experts, and people with direct experience.

Tilinda Rosales, a registered nurse at St. Elizabeth Hospital in Youngstown, is one such person. She recently lost her father to COVID-19. People like Rosales, 58, of Sharon, are warning flares for complacent communities to stay vigilant, and points of light illuminating the darkness of ignorance.

Rosales’ father, 77-year-old Eugene Barborak, of Sharon, died Aug. 20. Her mother, Marian Barborak, who had more health problems than her husband, contracted COVID-19 but recovered. Eugene Barborak contracted COVID-19 by allowing friends into his house without wearing masks, Rosales said.

“My house, my rules,” Barborak had said 

Before dying less than four weeks after contracting COVID-19, he made an emotional apology to his family.

“He was such a strong man, but I remember him putting his hands to his eyes like he couldn’t take it anymore,” Rosales said. ”It was just heartbreaking.”

Sadly, Rosales and other medical professionals nationwide will see their hospitals fill up over the next few months — much of it avoidable. “Wearing a mask is just respecting other people,” Rosales said.

“People assume they’re safe and they’re not. They’re playing Russian Roulette. Until it hits home, they don’t understand how serious this is.”

Corralling the coronavirus isn’t rocket science. It doesn’t take the most advanced technology. Countries with fewer resources, such as Vietnam, have done a far better job of controlling COVID-19 infections. It starts with following simple but effective safety measures, including social distancing, wearing masks in public, ventilating rooms, avoiding crowds, and washing hands frequently and rigorously.

Government mandates don’t work if people don’t follow them. Irrespective of the nation’s abysmal lack of leadership, local and state economies could re-open with far fewer new COVID cases and deaths, if all Americans did their part.

It’s up to us.

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