WATERTOWN — The COVID-19 pandemic is a critical public health issue generating proportionate government response due to the nature of the spread of the virus.
The novel coronavirus is a personal health issue also and with that comes a personal responsibility to protect your health as with any illness or health choice. People may choose a healthy lifestyle and work diligently at their personal health or make less healthy choices and endure the consequences.
The healthy choice with the coronavirus requires being diligent to guard yourself against getting the virus; the reckless choice abandons caution and endures the consequences. Any one of us may get the virus, but let us all make the best choices to minimize transmission.
I hope that by now everyone has read the guidance for personal hygiene choices as well as measures like social distancing and only minimal, necessary movement. I offer an additional personal response that you can take to help avoid the virus and better your chance to stay healthy during this time: “assume positive.”
This “assume positive” attitude considers that the person near you is positive and you are positive as well, whether symptomatic or more importantly asymptomatic. Many people are asymptomatic, so there are many more positive cases throughout the county than have been tested. We operate using the assumption that existing cases are everywhere throughout the county, and we ask the public to remain vigilant and assume the same.
This leads to the question of where the existing cases are located in Jefferson County and why there has not been a map issued by us. The location disclosure issue is of great debate around the state: disclosing the correct amount of information vs. the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act privacy requirement; the amount of information that is useful to the public vs. creating unnecessary anxiety; or, conversely, enabling a false sense of security leading to easement of personal responsibility.
This issue is an often discussed and reviewed topic at the county. We at Jefferson County have at this time decided to stay on the conservative side of the issue with our release of statistics.
The relevance of disclosing location information is another consideration. Most responses from the public are centered on the “right to know” as a reason.
I remind people that these individuals are only sick; they have not done anything against society to warrant further exposure. They deserve a certain level of privacy during a very public emergency response, and they are no different from any other person having any contagious illness.
Regarding the public’s right to know, I ask two questions: Why and of what purpose is the information? What will you do with it once you have the information?
The response to the follow-up questions is generally that someone will change their personal behavior to a more precautionary state. Again, my position is every one of us has a personal responsibility to act that way right now — at all times and in every setting.
This is a highly contagious illness. It is omnipresent, and there is no known medication to address it yet. Everyone should take the most cautious approach, which assumes you are positive and the person near you is positive, and act accordingly.
Confidential medical information is the responsibility of Jefferson County Public Health, and we assume the safeguarding of it. The potential for further disclosure of any of it deserves the utmost due diligence, and the need to exchange information exists for the purposes of treatment only.
Public Health is in overdrive with aggressive activity utilizing quarantine measures and monitoring of individuals, and our work is to support these staff members in maintaining that activity to keep producing results in the way of minimal cases. The main mission is to treat people who are ill and slow the spread to prevent an imminent threat to the public, and kudos to Public Health for doing that so well.
I realize people are not asking for anyone’s address, just a map listing by town. We have seen and experienced the efforts of people who believe a resident of their town or village has tested positive: It creates a mission of search and discovery to identify the individual they believe is a positive case. No individual deserves that process; we each deserve the services our health system is designed and prepared to deliver with privacy.
The people who deserve public recognition during this time are all our community’s health care workers who are on the frontline of this virus. I am grateful for the work they are doing every day, and our community owes them a debt of gratitude for the risk they are taking each day just to do their jobs.
In closing, as with everything related to COVID-19, circumstances are ever-evolving; we evaluate county operations continuously and are adaptable to changing conditions. That said, our public release of COVID-19 information will remain countywide data. I ask everyone to remember this: The more you are responsible for yourself, the more you are helping your community.
Regards, and stay well.
Scott A. Gray, R-Watertown, is chairman of the Jefferson County Board of Legislators.