There is undeniably a lot of anxiety — and some panic — in this community and elsewhere in the country about the outbreak of the new coronavirus. Greenwood and Leflore County officials are sincerely trying to respond to the situation in a way that they hope reduces the incidence locally of COVID-19, which can be particularly hard on the elderly and those with already compromised health conditions.
But they also need to be careful that they don’t add to the alarm by taking steps that are overreactive. They may be following the guidance of federal and state health officials — and the example of other communities — by imposing severe restrictions on communal life, but some of the measures they have taken exceed the recommendations and have potentially contributed to the panic.
We can think of at least three examples.
No. 1: When Greenwood Mayor Carolyn McAdams and three other city leaders went into self-imposed quarantines after returning from a conference in Washington, D.C., this went beyond the advice of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which already errs on the side of caution. Two individuals who attended that same conference — supposedly from Colorado – later tested positive for the coronavirus. None of the four in the delegation from Greenwood met these two individuals. At most, they sat in the same large conference room with them. By the CDC guidelines, their exposure would have been rated low or no risk, and since they showed no symptoms, there would be no cause for quarantine.
No. 2: This week, the Leflore County Board of Supervisors, a few days after restricting public access to the courthouse, completely shut down the building after one employee tested positive for the coronavirus. That response also went beyond CDC guidelines, which say that when there is a positive test for an employee, the employer should notify fellow employees of their possible exposure, and those employees should monitor themselves for symptoms of the infection. If they were in close contact for a prolonged period with the infected co-worker, those employees should go into quarantine and monitor their symptoms, but there is no reason to close the workplace.
No. 3: Greenwood Leflore Recycling announced this week that it would indefinitely stop all collections. It claimed that since the virus can live on surfaces — according to the present research, up to three days on plastic and one day on paper and cardboard — sorting the recyclables put workers at risk. What about wearing rubber gloves and washing their hands after they finish sorting? Worse case, could they not have come up with a system to store the recyclables for one to three days, depending on the type of material, before sorting? By completely shutting down the recycling, people who now recycle might get out of the habit and not restart when the operation resumes.
There are sensible precautions to take to avoid infection or transmitting the virus. Wash your hands regularly. Don’t shake hands. Avoid touching your face. Stay 6 feet apart from others whenever possible. Disinfect common touch points. Stay home if you’ve got fever.
These are the messages that public officials can help communicate. But when they take it upon themselves to do more than what’s recommended, they may be setting an example not of best practices but of fear.