Like other constituents, I received an email recently from Congressman Andy Harris concerning the coronavirus pandemic. While I appreciate his being in touch, several statements in his letter left me baffled.
First, while he concedes that using data to determine when it is safe to “reopen,” is important, his analysis of what data to use and when to use it seems entirely backwards. Harris says that “using total diagnosed case counts is not as valuable since we do not know how many people have or had COVID-19 and are asymptomatic and therefore not tested. But as more testing becomes available, we will be diagnosing people who up until now would not have been tested, thus artificially increasing the case count.” (Emphasis mine.) He goes on to argue that “tracking hospitalizations and ICU usage is the best way to determine the incidence of COVID-19 in the community.”
No. Testing more people tells us how many people are infected, who they are and where so that we know what to do to protect others. Those numbers are more accurate, not “artificial.” The virus is not going to disappear if you don’t test people for it. It will still be there, infecting more and more people until you can stop it. If you are standing on railroad tracks and you see an onrushing train, you cannot make it go away by closing your eyes and pretending it isn’t there.
Doing more testing tells us how serious the outbreak of the disease is so that we can control it. Until there is a safe and effective vaccine, the only way to protect everyone is to test widely to find out who is infected. Then you must isolate those people and do contact tracing to find others who may have been exposed and quarantine them as well. We know that infected people can infect others before they develop symptoms or even if they never develop symptoms at all. Waiting until people are sick enough to be admitted to the hospital or an ICU is far too late. Some people will go to the emergency room quickly. Other people may wait much longer. Still others will die at home, carrying the virus and spreading it for as long as four weeks. The only way to prevent people from spreading COVID-19 is to find out who they are as quickly as possible, and then isolate them.
Secondly, Harris tries to defend the indefensible: his support for and attendance at the so-called Reopen Maryland rally in Salisbury. Lending his support to this event was irresponsible.
No one likes stay-at-home orders. Everyone wants kids back in school, adults back at work. However, the truth is that statewide lockdowns have worked, and they would have worked better had they been implemented sooner. A study by researchers at Columbia University estimates that had the lockdowns occurred even one week sooner, 36,000 lives would have been saved. Two weeks earlier and 54,000 lives would have been saved. We can begin reopening slowly now only because Governor Hogan and other leaders made the difficult decision to order people to stay home when they did.
Harris argues for reopening businesses, churches etc. on the basis of two first amendment rights: freedom to worship and freedom of assembly. Those are indeed fundamental American rights that must be respected and defended.
That said, those rights, if exercised as they would be under normal circumstances, put people’s lives at risk during a pandemic. COVID -19 is a deadly, highly contagious disease that spreads from one person to others through close contact. As I write this, it has already killed over 90,000 Americans. As noted above, people do not have to show symptoms to infect others. The only way to prevent this virus from spreading is to keep people from being in close contact with one another. Unfortunately, there is no way to keep people far enough apart when they gather for church services or protests. Several churches which have reopened, even with strict precautions, have had to close down again because a significant number of those who attended became infected. Several died.
In the meantime, many churches have used modern technology to give their members a way to worship safely. Religious leaders around Chestertown are offering both on-line services and drive-in services. Neither replaces the sense of community people feel when worshiping together, but right now the health and safety of their parishioners is much more important. No one is denying anyone freedom to worship, but they are trying to make sure those doing so stay safe.
As for freedom of assembly, those attending that rally in Salisbury put themselves at risk for COVID-19. Worse, driving from Frederick to Salisbury and then returning home, they put everyone they encountered, along the way and in their home communities, at risk too. Salisbury’s citizens did not need people from much more highly infected parts of Maryland coming to expose them to this virus. Did the protesters have a right to assemble? Yes, they did, but they had no right to put the lives of others in danger by doing so.
People attending the “Reopen Maryland” rally want life to get back to normal. So does everyone else, but this virus will be in our communities and a threat to everyone until we have a vaccine. In the meantime, our leaders have a responsibility to keep us informed about how we can best keep ourselves and everyone else safe. Their decisions must be based on science and data, not childish resentment and anger or wishful thinking.
Congressman Harris should understand his obligation to serve as a role model. That is both the privilege and the burden of leadership. If he is unwilling to shoulder that burden, he should step aside for someone else who will.