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Gilbreth column: Legitimate frustrations over virus policies

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Charleston mask sign.jpg (copy)

Signs posted on Market Street around the City Market in Charleston remind visitors that a mask ordinance is in effect. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Although yours truly isn’t an immunologist, epidemiologist or health policy expert (or at least no more so than the “average” doctor), and whereas most people clearly want to do the right thing when it comes to managing the spread of COVID-19 infection, to “do their part,” socially distance, wear masks (when and where appropriate), one can still feel a certain amount of frustration creeping in, even though at-risk people and others are getting vaccinated and amidst precipitously declining numbers.

People are frustrated because this has been going on for over a year and yet continue to hear warnings that social distancing, masks and other restrictions will remain necessary — according to the experts — even after people have been vaccinated. According to Dr. Anthony Fauci, studies are underway to determine whether those who have been vaccinated can nonetheless manage to become asymptomatic carriers of the virus, and to what degree clinically would this be important.

There are also concerns about the impact of variant strains of the virus, which, thus far anyway, appear to be reasonably well covered by the vaccines that are available. At any rate, and although rules seem to vary from state to state and city to city, we’re clearly nowhere back to normal and probably won’t be for quite some time. This is a bit of a gut check for those who have patiently been going through an ordeal and desperately yearn for what it felt like 15 months ago.

The ordeal has claimed the lives of 550,000 Americans and, despite all efforts, still paralyzes the country with what has been an undeniable failure to stop cases from escalating and to prevent hospitalizations and death. These efforts have included unilateral government issue decrees, forced closure of businesses and churches, quarantines and so forth, and despite all that, plus reasonable adherence to mobility restrictions and mask-wearing, we still ended up in this predicament. How is that even possible? Before the vaccines were rolled out, nothing seems to have worked, and even President Joe Biden admitted as much during a speech to the nation on Jan. 22.

“There is nothing we can do,” he said, “to change the trajectory of the pandemic in the next several months.”

The experts will say that things would have been much worse in the absence of these restrictions — and of course they’re right — but our epidemiologic data are among the worst in the entire world despite broad stroke preventative strategies that are among the most severe and characterized by good public adherence to health policy recommendations. Clearly there’s a lot more to the story that’s not being talked about so much — and that’s frustrating.

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This is not to mention the unintended and negative consequences of certain aspects of policy — including the problems with America’s school-age children and their families, specifically as pertains to children falling off the radar screen, subpar learning, social isolation and depression. Domestic violence and child abuse have skyrocketed — all of which are huge problems with downstream consequences that may last decades. When considering that children are extremely low risk for significant problems affiliated with the virus and are not proven to be significant spreaders to adults, this would arguably be at least one area where lockdown policy has done more harm than good — and that’s frustrating.

It’s very encouraging that the vaccines are rolled out and that somewhere between 1 million and 3 million are getting vaccinated every day. As of last week, people 16 and older are eligible in South Carolina and several other states. All eligible people should get vaccinated and, yes, continue to practice the usual mitigating measures such as social distancing (6 feet), extra sanitation, masks, group limits (particularly indoors), testing and whatnot. I’ve had both my Pfizer shots and have only heard that chip they inject into you beep a couple of times, which isn’t bad. (That would be said in jest, by the way.)

Now this would never happen in a fair city such as Charleston, but if an official should walk up to you and your significant other who, for the moment anyway, are not wearing masks but are not really near other people, as you both walk down a city street or sidewalk by yourselves, and that you further have both been vaccinated, and that this same official issues tickets to you both for not being masked, why then you’d have a valid excuse to feel — the word of the day — frustrated.

And based on the science as I understand it, you shouldn’t be blamed for it. If you were among other people, that would be a different scenario and I get it (somewhat). But as described, no, you’re frustrated and I get that, too.

Edward M. Gilbreth is a Charleston physician. Reach him at

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