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Matt Wellington is the Public Health Campaigns Director for U.S. PIRG in Portland. Bill Wood is a physician in Bangor.
We’re on track to have lost more American lives to the novel coronavirus by April 2021 than we did in all of World War II. At the onset of that war 80 years ago, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said “all private plans, all private lives, have been in a sense repealed by an overriding public danger.” Back then, Americans rose to the challenge, uniting behind a single purpose — to protect and care for each other. Let’s do the same now.
Maine just had its highest single-day case count since the pandemic began late last winter. The seven-day average for new cases has more than doubled in a month. While we have the seventh-lowest rate of cases nationally, that’s a low bar to set given how bad things are in the rest of the country. Without swift action, many more people in Maine will suffer grief, loss and hardship in the coming weeks.
While many people followed public health advice and stayed home for Thanksgiving, others ignored protective recommendations against travel and gathering. That likely contributed to the recent spike in cases, and some of those cases will eventually turn into hospitalizations, and then deaths. As hard as it is, given the existential danger from COVID-19, staying home for the upcoming holiday is the best gift you can give to each other.
When we wrote last June that ” the war on COVID-19 is far from over, and we’re not prepared for what comes next,” no one knew when this pandemic would end. Now, with the first Mainers receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, the end is in sight. That’s cause for celebration, but we’re still months away from widespread vaccination, meaning basic public health protocols including mask wearing, social distancing and avoiding gatherings are still the best ways to protect each other.
That’s why Gov. Janet Mills made the right call when she recently strengthened Maine’s mask mandate. Universal mask wearing can save tens of thousands of lives. However, more restrictions will likely be necessary to curb the spread of the virus given how aggressively it’s circulating throughout Maine’s communities.
Metaphorically, if your house is on fire, you shouldn’t wait until the roof caves in to evacuate. We’re urging Mills to be proactive, instead of waiting to implement additional measures to save lives. Too many governors across the country have made that mistake already. California failed to act boldly enough to curb the spread until hospitals were on the brink of overflowing, with ICUs across the state at less than 15 percent available capacity. When hospitals have no more capacity, it puts everyone needing medical care at risk, not just COVID-19 patients.
If Maine’s numbers don’t head quickly in the right direction, the governor may have to take the drastic, but likely necessary, step of temporarily closing non-essential businesses and issuing a stay-at-home order. Many business owners and people who can’t work from home may struggle financially while performing a greater good for society by not working. So, federal lawmakers should immediately pass legislation that gives Americans income to keep them secure while they stay home. That legislation should also include robust funding for increased testing infrastructure, vaccine distribution and vaccination programs — all of which will help end the pandemic sooner.
If state and federal leaders fail to act now, it will not only risk lives, it will prolong economic damage. Regardless of any restrictions, many people won’t go shopping, eat at a restaurant, or grab a beer at a bar if there’s a high risk that they’ll contract or spread the virus.
As winter sets in here in Maine, we can look forward to the spring for more than just the weather change. Experts say that by March and April, the vaccine should be more widely available to the public. In the meantime, let’s buckle down and protect each other.