Erik Gunn

Barnes Urges Social Distancing to Slow COVID-19 Spread

The lieutenant governor says people need to exercise caution heading into cold weather.

By , Wisconsin Examiner - Oct 2nd, 2020 06:44 pm
Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes appears in a PSA on COVID-19 prevention. (Screen capture from DHS YouTube broadcast)

Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes appears in a PSA on COVID-19 prevention. (Screen capture from DHS YouTube broadcast)

With public health almost entirely dependent on voluntary behavior and few enforced restrictions, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes telephoned Friday to get the word out: Wisconsin residents need to do what it takes to stop the spread of COVID-19.

“We’re encouraging extreme caution for people across the state,” Barnes said in a phone interview. Compared especially to April and May, still the early months of the pandemic, “we are in a worse position when it comes to the rate of transmission.”

The overnight revelation that President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump have tested positive for COVID-19 adds urgency to the message, he observed — “conveying that this virus knows no bounds.”

The routine has been the same for months, but over time, its observance has been lagging. Barnes’ mission on Friday was to put it back in front of the public, in this instance by making the rounds with the state’s news outlets.

With the change in weather, “it’s a dangerous phase that we’re in right now,” Barnes said. Over the summer, “it was easier for people to go outside and enjoy themselves and distance in a way that contracting the virus was not as likely.”

During the summer, “when people were at bars it was comfortable to be out on the patio,” he said. Now the temperatures are dropping. Football is back on, and while stadiums are empty except for the players, “people are still congregating” — indoors.

“It’s the same way [with] the regular flu or the common cold — that’s how those viruses are more  easily transmitted. Not because the temperature’s dropped, but because of people’s behavior” — gathering in close quarters where germs spread more easily.

“We’re asking people to exercise caution when it comes to hanging out — a movie night, a family get together, just the same things we’ve always been talking about,” Barnes said. Social gatherings need to be put on pause, and state residents need to keep following guidance for regular, thorough hand-washing, using hand sanitizer and standing 6 feet apart from anyone outside their immediate household.

And wear masks. Barnes has made public service announcement videos, which can be seen on YouTube in advance of the weekly media briefings held by the state Department of Health Services, urging people to follow the statewide mask order that Gov. Tony Evers has declared.

“I think it’s important for us as leaders of the state to model good behavior and promote safe behavior, safe practices, especially if the Legislature won’t do it,” said Barnes, a former legislator. “If we don’t do it, people would just say, ‘Forget it, and it’s not worth it. If our leaders aren’t practicing it, why should  we take it upon ourselves to wear masks and practice physical distancing guidelines?’”

A great-aunt of his who was in a long-term care home was hospitalized in late summer with COVID-19. “She, fortunately, has recovered,” said Barnes. “But I recently had a regular doctor visit. And my doctor told me that he lost over 30 patients, himself, in March and April alone.”

He paused at the sheer volume. Given the time that has elapsed, it might be closer to 40, he said.

“It’s an inordinate number for any doctor,” he said, and his voice hushed. “It was just a tough time.”

Barnes recounted a recent notice from the Winnebago County Health Department: “It said that without a change in community behavior, hospitals will be overwhelmed in the next several weeks or less. And that is a very scary thought.”

Changing our behavior isn’t easy, he acknowledged. For many people, “it takes a close encounter. And that’s the scary part — it shouldn’t take that.”

Maybe we should think of the changes in our behavior needed to curb COVID-19 — giving up the pleasure of the crowd, giving up the freedom to go out without covering our nose and mouth with a piece of cloth, giving up the carefree ability to not fear an encounter with the invisible and intractable virus — as comparable to giving up smoking or drinking.

Offered that suggestion, Barnes agreed.

“But it’s not even giving up — it’s just like a temporary pause,” he added. A pause. “We’re hoping it’s only temporary. But if we don’t temporarily give it up, then who knows how much longer it will be, and how much worse the outcome.”

Already evidence is showing that the virus mutates in subtle ways, Barnes pointed out, adding, “Who knows what the outcome is going to be?”

There’s one message over all that Barnes hopes to get across.

“You know, while people may think that they are immune, or even people that are willing to take a risk for their own health — it is more than just your own health,” he said. “It’s much bigger than you as an individual.”

Reprinted with permission of Wisconsin Examiner.

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