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Dangerous omissions in COVID-19 prevention advice from Stefanik

On June 5, Elise Stefanik sent an email to her constituents that included information on the prevention of COVID-19 that was outdated and incomplete. The newsletter reproduced a flyer from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention dated February 2020 that listed steps the public should take to prevent the spread of coronavirus: Avoid contact with people who are sick, wash your hands frequently, and avoid touching your mouth, nose and eyes.

For some odd reason, Stefanik’s newsletter ignored the updated CDC flyer from March 2020, which included all the above information with the important added recommendation that people maintain a distance of 6 feet apart when in public places. Congresswoman Stefanik also did not include more recent information about what we now know is perhaps the most important measure to keep the virus from spreading: wearing a mask or face covering in all public places where 6 feet of social distance cannot be maintained such as supermarkets, pharmacies and public transportation.

Certainly, advice from the Coronavirus Task Force on controlling the spread of the virus has been inconsistent and confusing. In January at the start of the outbreak in the U.S., public health officials emphasized the danger of transmitting the virus by touching contaminated surfaces and then touching the mouth, nose or eyes, and preventive measures focused on hand washing. It is also true that initially the public was not advised to wear masks, mainly due to a fear that there would be a shortage of masks for health care workers if the general public were competing for limited supplies. All that changed when research clearly showed that the virus was primarily transmitted by tiny droplets of saliva emitted by an infected person simply by talking, singing or laughing, in addition to coughing or sneezing. Moreover it became clear that people could transmit the virus even if they had no signs or symptoms themselves. As a result, on April 3 Surgeon General Jerome Adams announced that the CDC had changed its guidelines and now recommended the widespread use of cloth face masks by the general public, a recommendation that President Trump promptly stated he would personally ignore because he didn’t like the way masks looked. At the same time, new research showed that the likelihood of becoming infected by touching contaminated surfaces was relatively small. So public health messaging evolved to emphasize controlling the transmission of the virus by avoiding face-to-face contact through the use of social distancing and masks.

Why would Congresswoman Stefanik choose to reproduce a CDC message from February instead of the updated information from March and April more accurately reflected current scientific public health information? My guess is that she does not want to conflict with President Trump’s disdain for masks and social distancing. How much lower might infection rate in the U.S. have been if masks and social distancing had been recommended early on, and how many deaths could have been prevented? Instead, the U.S. has the dubious distinction of having the highest number of COVID-19 deaths of any country in the world.

Unfortunately, we can’t undo past mistakes, but we can learn from those mistakes going forward. Even though the coronavirus infection rate is declining now, many public health experts including CDC director Dr. Robert Redfield expect a second wave to occur this fall or winter that could be even worse than the first. There will be no excuse for not being better prepared the second time around. For Congresswoman Stefanik to continue to provide outdated, incomplete and misleading information is a disservice to her constituents. In a situation where lives are at stake, it is dangerous and inexcusable.

Rosalie Fontana lives in Bloomingdale.

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