By Dr. Harry J. Heiman
Our current crisis was not inevitable. Eighteen months ago we faced the collective challenge of a global pandemic the likes of which we had never seen. This required a tremendous learning curve in the understanding and response by a public health workforce that had been chronically underfunded and understaffed.
Against this formidable challenge, we witnessed leadership successes and failures at every level of government and public health. Adaptive leadership in the face of an evolving pandemic is hard, even for those who are most prepared. We also witnessed the unfortunate politicization of critical public health strategies and the blatant spread of misinformation. As the current coronavirus Delta variant surges in Georgia and across the South, however, each day brings a new dystopian reality.
In September 2021, it is not by chance that the delta variant surge that began in Missouri and Arkansas is now ravaging Georgia and states across the South. Based on Georgia Department of Public Health data, we are about to surpass the peak numbers of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths we experienced last winter. For public health experts, this was both predictable and preventable. Georgia’s combination of low vaccination rates and lack of coordinated state-level policies to protect the public and mitigate community spread made us the ideal target for this new virulent strain.
Tragically, the rhetoric and blind trust that “people in our state will do the right thing” are reflected in our current crisis. Not only is Georgia a national outlier as reflected in our low vaccination rates, our state’s public health and political leadership have consistently failed to follow the science and evidence to put in place policies that leverage the two most powerful tools to turn the tide of the pandemic — vaccines and masks. While our governor has repeatedly stated he does not believe in mandates, they are both proven and necessary to control this pandemic and save lives.
To be clear, laws and mandates to protect the public’s health are a part of our daily lives. Georgians are mandated to wear seatbelts in their cars, despite the physical “discomfort” they might cause or the belief among some, despite compelling evidence, that the belts don’t increase safety. Georgians are prohibited from smoking in public places — a restriction on personal freedom — based on clear evidence documenting the health risks of second-hand smoke.
Children and university students are required to provide documentation of a range of vaccinations prior to entering school, including shots for tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis, measles, meningitis and other diseases. That is as it should be. But ironically, the coronavirus currently poses a greater threat than any of these other diseases.
Failure of our current state leadership to adopt common-sense public health measures to protect our children, families and communities will predictably make this pandemic worse and continue to lead to preventable cases, hospitalizations and deaths. Nowhere is this lack of leadership more profound than in our schools and state universities. Based on current public health evidence and guidelines, the following policies need to be enacted immediately: All kindergarten through Grade 12 schools should institute vaccine mandates for teachers and staff and mask mandates for students, teachers and staff.
In-person classes are critical, especially for younger children. Requiring them to participate in in-person instruction in the absence of a mask mandate is fueling the current outbreaks across schools in our state and the surge in both cases and hospitalizations among children and adolescents.
Current University System of Georgia policies are antithetical to the educational missions of our state institutions as well as our ethical responsibility to ensure the safety and health of students, faculty and staff. The current lack of vaccine and mask mandates and the requirement that classes be held in person will predictably lead to outbreaks. Faculty are proscribed from asking about vaccine status or requiring students to wear a mask in their classrooms or their private offices. This “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy approach from USG allows no flexibility on the part of individual institutions or faculty members based on their desire to meet the educational and safety needs of students. This is both untenable and unethical.
How can we possibly justify policies that fly in the face of current evidence and the public health science that we teach? It is critical that USG put in place policies and guidelines aligned with current evidence and guidelines. This includes joining the roughly 680 colleges and universities across the country, including those in states like Indiana, Virginia, and Louisiana, with vaccine mandates. It also means instituting a mask mandate and appropriate social distancing for all indoor spaces on university campuses.
Finally, it requires allowing greater flexibility and accommodations for faculty members, students, and staffers who find themselves in exceptionally high-risk situations related to Covid.
The course of this pandemic is not inevitable. But turning the tide requires critical state policy leadership. In the absence of state leadership guided by science and evidence, we will continue to see a worsening surge of cases, hospitalizations and deaths, with our schools, colleges, and universities at the epicenter of our worsening crisis.
Dr. Heiman is a family physician and public health expert in Atlanta. He emphasizes that the views and opinions in this Commentary are his own, and do not reflect those of Georgia State University, where he is a faculty member.