COVID-19: Georgia Deserves Better
Dr. Scott Deitchman and Dr. Richard A. Lemen
On Friday, October 2, the president announced he’d been diagnosed with COVID-19 illness. He had plenty of company. He was one of 54,506 Americans whose new cases were reported that day. Even worse, on that day, 916 deaths from COVID-19 were reported in the US. It didn’t have to be this way.
We’re health professionals who spent our careers working to protect the health of the United States and its citizens. One of us is a physician, the other a PhD scientist. We both were rear admirals in the United States Public Health Service, and both served as Assistant Surgeons General.
Every time we hear of a COVID-19 case, we hope that person recovers. News media reported the president received the best of both current and experimental treatments. But we know it didn’t have to be this way.
Let’s compare the US to another country, South Korea (reported case and death totals are from the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Research Center). On October 2, the US had experienced a cumulative 7.332 million cases and 208,697 deaths among its 329 million residents. South Korea had 24,027 cases and 420 deaths among its 51 million residents. The United States has only about 6½ times as many people as South Korea, yet the US had 47 times more cases and 77 times more deaths when adjusted for population size. It didn’t have to be this way, as the example of countries like South Korea proves.
Here in Georgia, we have a population of about 10.6 million. Seoul, the capital of South Korea, is pretty close, with a population of 9.7 million. According to Korea’s Centers for Disease Control Headquarters, as of October 4, 2020, Seoul had a cumulative 5,376 confirmed cases and 60 deaths. On that same day, Georgia had a cumulative 322,925 cases and 7,162 deaths. Adjusting for the difference in population, Georgia had 55 times as many cases and 109 times as many deaths. It didn’t have to be that way.
The response of the United States to the COVID-19 pandemic has been a long series of failures and missteps. It started with the administration’s failure to take seriously the intelligence and public health communities’ warnings of the impending COVID-19 crisis. We lost valuable weeks that could have been used to prepare homes, schools, hospitals, health departments, and businesses.
It includes failure to tell the American public the nature and seriousness of the pandemic so Americans could rally and respond together. When the United States was attacked at Pearl Harbor, Americans set aside many differences to work together under national leadership that told each individual what he or she could do to contribute to the effort. Instead, with COVID-19 we saw a nation divided by the president’s efforts to minimize the seriousness of the pandemic, disregard his health and medical experts, and even to ridicule efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19 through simple measures like wearing a mask and maintaining social distance.
In Georgia we felt this disinformation campaign when it included the administration’s efforts to censor, stifle, and discredit the scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Unique among the states, for over 70 years Georgia has hosted the headquarters of this gem in the crown of the nation’s disease prevention and control system. CDC is both a national and an international treasure. Doctors around the country and the world ask “What does CDC say?” before treating their patients.
Yet, in response to the greatest health crisis the nation has experienced, we saw that treasure trashed and discarded. We’ve never seen this behavior from another administration, not in the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, nor the 2001 anthrax attack, nor any other public health emergency. Only an administration more concerned with its own spin and its own appearance than about the public’s health stoops so low as to attack CDC for telling the truth.
It didn’t have to be this way, and it need not be this way going forward. We need national leadership that respects American science and will work with our health experts to defend American health using the best evidence that science can give us. It can be that way, and if we hope to defeat COVID-19 and protect Georgians from needless illness and death, it must be that way.
Dr. Scott Deitchman and Dr. Richard A. Lemen are retired rear admirals of the U.S. Public Health Service and former Assistant Surgeons General. In addition to 30 years serving at CDC, in 2006–7 Dr. Deitchman served in the White House as the Vice President’s Medical Advisor on Homeland Security Affairs.