As chair of the Clark County Council, it was important for Eileen Quiring O’Brien to walk back recent comments questioning the effectiveness of masks during the coronavirus pandemic. But the controversy points out the danger of misinformation and the ease with which alternative facts can spread.
On Thursday, Quiring O’Brien said her comments at the previous day’s meeting of the Clark County Board of Health were misconstrued. At that meeting, after Dr. Alan Melnick, the county’s top health officer, said that masks and social distancing are the best way to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Quiring O’Brien retorted: “There’s also evidence contrary to that. We hear it. It’s frustrating to me because I hear the opposite, Dr. Melnick. That masks really don’t help, and I don’t think it’s junk science. I just think it’s a difference of opinion.”
Yes, it is junk science. No, it is not simply a difference of opinion. A strong consensus has emerged among health professionals that masks are essential in the battle against coronavirus, and Quiring O’Brien’s pushback exemplified this nation’s damning willingness to accept “evidence” that matches personal narratives. There are reasons the United States has more COVID-19 infections and more deaths attributed to the disease than any other country, and one of them is a reluctance to accept the findings of science.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “recommends that people wear masks in public settings and when around people who don’t live in your household, especially when other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain. Masks may help prevent people who have COVID-19 from spreading the virus to others.”
The Mayo Clinic writes: “Can face masks help slow the spread of the coronavirus? Yes, face masks combined with other preventive measures, such as frequent hand-washing and social distancing, help slow the spread of the virus.”
The World Health Organization writes: “Masks should be used as part of a comprehensive strategy of measures to suppress transmission and save lives.”
Quiring O’Brien’s assertions to the contrary were irresponsible, dangerous and devoid of leadership. She has been elected to the top position in a county government that oversees nearly 500,000 residents, and ensuring public health must be one of her top priorities.
Quiring O’Brien and Councilor Gary Medvigy recently attended a crowded political rally without wearing masks. In so doing, they modeled the behavior that has led to an increase in COVID-19 infections in the county, preventing businesses and schools from reopening. Wishing for something to happen does not make it so; responsible actions that start with elected officials are necessary.
On Thursday, Quiring O’Brien explained to The Columbian that she challenged Melnick because it is her responsibility to question staff and other officials. Indeed. But it also is her responsibility to be up to date on the latest science surrounding the disease. It also is her responsibility to not spew falsehoods without citing the source of her information.
Because COVID-19 was unknown less than a year ago, knowledge about it is continually growing. Last week, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said: “It’s overwhelmingly important for everyone to wear a mask. We have to put that nonsense behind us. Masks work.”
Clark County would be better off without a leader who embraces nonsense and tries to defend it as a matter of opinion.