Winning the War Against COVID-19 Requires Strong Leadership!

In recent weeks, COVID-19 became the leading cause of death in the United States, surpassing heart disease and cancer. According to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, the virus took 11,820 American lives in the first week of December. Think about that.

We are witnessing daily death counts (2,000-3,000) that match the losses from the most agonizing moments in our nation’s history — including 9/11, D-Day, and Pearl Harbor.

As a practicing physician, I have seen firsthand how hard health care professionals are working to save lives, and protect and educate the public. They are literally putting their own lives and their families at risk to help the communities they serve. It’s not only doctors and nurses who are at risk, but also the essential support staff, including medical aides, lab techs, janitorial workers, and so many more. They’ve been tirelessly doing their jobs, under these extreme conditions, for more than nine months now.

That’s why I have been so vocal about the lack of leadership demonstrated throughout this pandemic on both the federal and local levels. So many of the reported cases — and deaths — could have been avoided if the public had received a clear and consistent message from our elected officials early on regarding the simple steps we can all take to prevent the spread of the virus. I find it unconscionable that thousands of families have lost a loved one simply because our leaders focused on partisan politics rather than protecting the lives of their constituents.

On a local level, the Orange County Board of Supervisors wasted months — refusing to shut down our beaches, questioning the use of masks, and attacking the County’s Chief Health Officer, Dr. Nicole Quick, who was simply doing her job in implementing State recommendations. Ultimately, Dr. Quick was harassed to the point of resignation.

Here in Irvine, the City Council refused to coordinate efforts with UCI — a world-class medical research institute that has been working on the frontlines of the pandemic since it began. The importance of testing and contact-tracing has been known since back in February, yet here we are in December and the City still has no plans for a comprehensive testing and tracing program. Their current program —which began in late July — only tests to see if a person currently has the virus. And the City has only tested a fraction of our 300,000 residents.

What I find most egregious is the fact that elected officials have been promoting themselves as COVID-19 experts. Let’s be clear. To my knowledge, no one who sits on the Orange County Board of Supervisors or the Irvine City Council has public health and/or medical training; and they do not have experience implementing the ever-changing and upgraded guidelines for communities, businesses and schools. Their lack of knowledge and their anemic response to the pandemic has resulted in the predicted “super-surge” we are now experiencing.

However, as with all health crises, there are steps that can be taken to improve matters right here in Irvine:

  1. Model Good Behavior.
    We need the Irvine City Council to model good behavior. Members of the previous Council did not wear masks during City Council meetings — sitting in the chamber, talking, accepting papers from staff, listening to unmasked presenters, and not making sure that table-tops, podiums and microphones are sanitized between speakers. The Council meetings are televised which has sent the message that our Council doesn’t take the virus seriously. (There is both asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic transmission of COVID-19. Therefore, we must all behave as if any individual we come into contact with is an asymptomatic carrier of this highly contagious virus.)

  2. Take Action.
    The new City Council should hire a Chief Health Officer who will, in turn, build a public health workforce for our City.

  3. Collaborate to Become a Model for the County.
    Our City has the resources to be the model for a comprehensive “whole city” approach to COVID-19. The Irvine Company partnered with medical experts at UCI Health to proactively help our local businesses and the community. They understand the importance of taking measures to reassure our residents that it is safe to “Shop Irvine.” Our City leaders should take that same approach, establishing public-private sector partnerships to provide the guidance and resources necessary to make sure that our community can safely reopen and stay open.

  4. Invest in our Students.
    For years, I have advocated hiring more certified school nurses in Irvine so that our City meets the American Academy of Pediatrics national recommendation of one nurse per school. There has never been a more important time to make sure we have a certified school nurse at every Irvine school to keep our children, teachers, staff … and our community safe.

  5. Plan Now for a COVID-19 Vaccine Delivery System.
    Trust our Public Safety Department to quickly develop a plan to ensure that our residents accept and complete the two-dose COVID-19 vaccinations. The plan must include all of the logistics of vaccine delivery, as well as an educational campaign to correct misinformation and promote vaccine acceptance. We must maintain high levels of immunization against all preventable diseases, including COVID-19.

About the author: Phyllis Agran is a practicing Orange County pediatrician, Professor Emeritus at the UC Irvine School of Medicine, and past president of the Orange County Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. She was named 2020 “Physician of the Year” by the Orange County chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Dr. Agran is a recognized national expert in pediatric injury control and prevention. She is also a member of the Irvine Unified School District’s Medical Advisory Committee.

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