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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Best path forward will be a data-driven, collective effort

By Dr. Bob Lutz Spokane Regional Health District

The path forward (into the unknown, the uncertain) should always begin with a few cautious steps in the direction you believe intended, while checking your bearings along the way to ensure you are truly on the correct path. Such is our path as we move into Phase II of Gov. Inslee’s Safe Start Washington. While some may view this as overly cautious, from my standpoint this is a very calibrated approach to ensure we do not find ourselves having to retreat.

The path forward will necessarily be one that has individuals, communities and governments weighing the balance between individual rights and the common good. Nobody has the right to harm another by their actions or inactions, mistruths or selfishness. No community has the right to provide for some and not others. And no government has the right to allow institutionalized and socialized inequities to adversely impact its citizens, especially its most vulnerable.

The path forward needs to be one that uses data and lessons learned. It will not be a linear one, however, given our evolving knowledge of Sars-CoV-2 and our inherent inability to remember. We have only to look at the incoherent national response and compare it to that of the 1918 Pandemic, citing a recently published piece (

Today, the highly reputed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been sidelined. Its guidelines for reopening the economy delayed and disparaged. Its scientists ignored because of a mandate for loyalty to an uninformed president, more worried about re-election than mounting deaths.

Then, as now, there was an unenforced national quarantine, each locality left to act on its own. Then, as now, governors and mayors begged Washington for help and received almost nothing. Then, as now, leaders lied and lost trust. Then, as now, the virus manifested in horrible, perplexing ways.

The numbers of influenza cases and deaths were vastly underreported; at least 50 million people died worldwide, 675,000 out of 105 million Americans. Thousands died alone. Political leaders ridiculed the idea of a second or third wave.

Then, as now, there was initial scoffing that the virus was worse than the normal flu, its frightening contagiousness and lethality denied. Fake treatments were rampant.

Nobody can argue the Stay Home, Stay Healthy did not impact the trajectory of the pandemic. Combined with local public health emergency declarations, Washingtonians did what was asked of them – they stayed home except for essential activities and decreased their social interactions. The data overwhelmingly demonstrate these efforts and sacrifices flattened the curve for many communities across the state. Unfortunately, Sars-CoV-2 welcomes close prolonged contact between individuals. Outbreaks in long-term care facilities, processing plants and agricultural settings have served to highlight the increased vulnerability of our seniors and workers deemed “essential” by a society that functions on their travails, but is often unwilling to support them in their time of need.

The path forward will also be one where risk mitigation determines individual and collective actions. The risk for becoming infected with Sars-CoV-2 is a function of time and space – the more time spent near an infected individual, the greater the likelihood. Settings such as gatherings (think performances, family events, bars, and some workplaces, e.g., factories and processing plants) are high risk. Outdoors, individual or family activities, such as walking, hiking, cycling and casual interactions in a store or while walking through your neighborhood or along a city street are low risk. Determine how much risk you want to assume, realizing COVID-19 will be here for the foreseeable future.

While some have inaccurately portrayed this virus as no worse than the flu, the reality is quite different. Research so far indicates it spreads more easily and has a higher death rate than the flu. And, of course, there is no vaccine at this time. But we cannot stay home indefinitely, so as we go about our daily lives, albeit ones that will be significantly different for the foreseeable future, we need to stay healthy. This means staying home when you’re feeling ill, following respiratory etiquette by covering your cough/sneeze, physically distancing where/when possible, washing your hands often and especially after touching frequently touched surfaces, avoid touching your face, and wearing face coverings and/or face mask when physical distancing isn’t possible. Will these cloth masks protect you from becoming infected? That is unlikely, but it can prevent you from inadvertently transmitting the infection to someone else if you are infected and do not know it.

As we venture onto this path forward, let us do so thoughtfully, selflessly and with patience. While this may not occur on a set timeline, it will be data-driven. It will be this collective effort that will ensure we find ourselves moving forward while every member of our community can be healthy and safe.

Dr. Bob Lutz is the Spokane County Health Officer.

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