If nothing changes before then, when Wednesday, Sept. 29 rolls around, Dr. Peter Alford said he and his wife will have some concerns about their daughter attending Catawba Springs Elementary School. During their regular board meeting held on Tuesday, Sept. 14, the Lincoln County Board of Education voted four to three to make masks in schools optional effective Sept. 29.

A Lincoln County resident, Alford is board certified in pulmonary medicine, critical care medicine, and sleep medicine and director of the Critical Care Unit at Catawba Valley Medical Center.

“I think the board’s decision is wrong on several levels,” he said. “I think the board is not only sending mixed messages but is messing with the formula that is based on science and a lot of careful thought trying to control this virus. The CDC has made recommendations for mitigating it and it’s not one thing, it’s a series of things. Besides masking, we’re supposed to be socially distancing, contact tracing and washing hands. Masking fits in as a piece to control this thing until we get people up and vaccinated and herd immunity can begin.”

Just taking that one thing away (masks), Alford said, is hurting the schools and everyone else because with the child going to school under a mask optional scenario, it may become the potential for a spreader event.

“It threatens my daughter because, even though she will continue to wear her mask, if there’s other kids in the school that aren’t wearing one, that puts a big old hole in the mitigating defense that we’re all trying to create,” he said. “It’s irresponsible of the board. Their first concern should be the kids. They’re putting the silly notion of prioritizing personal freedom over the collective good, which is what’s driving their decision making, I guess. Fighting a pandemic is like fighting a war. There’s sacrifices of personal rights that have to be made and always have been made by any civilization to win that war.”

The board’s message, Alford surmises, is that they don’t have to sacrifice anything including personal rights.

“You can just do what you want to, and we’ll let this thing range on and kill more people,” he said. 

Younger people are dying now. In the beginning of the pandemic, the bulk of the people dying was older citizens. The early focus was on protecting and then vaccinating them, but it all didn’t happen soon enough because a lot of older people died. Risk factors were also identified – obesity, diabetes, asthma, and some nationalities and the focus was put on vaccinating those people. 

“Younger people now are getting COVID and dying from it,” Alford said. “Another issue with them is that they feel invincible. I’ve got a 20-year-old nephew who says, ‘I’m not going to get sick.’ He refuses to get the vaccine. We’ve got 30, 40 and 50-year-olds on ventilators at Catawba right now. We’re also seeing people with no underlying conditions. The bulk of those in the hospital with COVID are not vaccinated.”

It’s a myth that COVID is only killing sick people, Alford said – an otherwise healthy firefighter passed away from COVID last week.

“People who are totally healthy are getting this disease and getting very sick from it and dying,” he said. “Most of them are unvaccinated.”

Because the doctors at Catawba Valley Medical Center are getting burned out from treating COVID patients, Alford, who’s the director of the ICU, is having to return to the hospital to help maintain the flow of patients in the outpatient area.

“People are anxious,” he said. “They want to see their doctor. If I don’t keep those people well, they’re going to end up in the ER. My job and that of my nurse practitioner and physician’s assistant and other doctors who work part-time is to keep our COPD and asthma and all our other patients as healthy as we can. Occasionally, I rotate into the ICU. I’ve tried to stay away some due to my age, I’m 68, but we lost one doctor who just burned out and quit.”

The hospital is bringing in outside doctors from other states to help in the critical care area.

“There’s a ripple effect of people burning out,” he said. “Also, at the hospital, we’ve set a number at where we need to kick in more people when we’re in a surge. We surpassed that number about two weeks ago. At that point, we said we needed to have two intensive care physicians in the hospital at all times instead of one. Intensivists are expensive, but Catawba does whatever it needs to.”

In reality, Alford said that he feels safest from COVID when he’s in the hospital where everyone is doing the right thing - wearing personal protection equipment, washing their hands and social distancing. 

“I feel less safe in my office because people are walking in,” he said. “A lot of people are still cautious, but there’s holes in the fence. Where I feel least safe is when I go to Walmart. Heck, I’d much rather have my daughter come to the hospital and hang out with me there, which she can’t do, than take her to Walmart or to go to school without masks.”

As Alford has his discussions with his patients, he always asks them if they’ve been vaccinated for COVID. He said that if he had to guess, about 70% say yes and 30% say no. The doctor congratulates those who say yes and those who say no, he politely asks why. 

“Very often, it’s a whole list of reasons,” he said, “’Its my personal choice,’ or ‘I don’t trust the vaccine or FDA.’ Here’s what’s bothering me, it’s kind of a slap in the face to me as their doctor when they say something like that. I guess they don’t realize it, but I rely on the FDA to do my job. I rely on the CDC to do my job. I’m as much as anything, an interpreter tasked with figuring out the science – what antibiotic do you need, what inhaler do you need for your asthma – it’s all based on information that comes out of those organizations. They (the FDA and CDC) make all of us the best doctors in the world because of the work they do. Here you’ve got some person who feels like they’re smarter than the FDA and science and are capable of saying no to doctors when they depend on them when they get sick.”

On Sept. 29, Alford said that his daughter, who is too young to be vaccinated, will probably go to school, but they’ll need to talk about their options before then. 

“I’m going to be scared,” he said. “She’ll go back, but other students and staff will be unmasked. I predict that they’ll start to have outbreaks and then they’re going to have to send home classes of kids, if they maintain any level of quarantine. They will kill people. Then they’ll have to go back to remote learning. We learned last year that doesn’t work good for kids, but once it goes crazy again, which it will, they’ll have to go remote.”

One benefit of students and staff wearing masks, Alford added, is that it keeps down other viruses, like respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), that younger children are prone to in the winter. When people stopped masking this summer, Alford said that doctors saw a lot of RSV in children and in some adults.

“We’ve always treated RSV in kids in the winter and here we are having an almost pandemic of RSV in the summertime,” he said. “It was because kids had not spent the winter before spreading it around and dealing with it. When they took their masks off, they were susceptible to RSV when they normally would have had some herd immunity by then. If we take our masks off, we’re not going to just spread coronavirus, we’re going to be spreading these other viruses and doctors are going to have to sort through it to figure out what virus it is. It’s bad timing to be taking your mask off right now.”

As a doctor with more than three decades of experience, Alford said that he never expected he’d have to deal with something like the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“This is the most shocking thing since 9/11 to me as a citizen and a doctor,” he said. “I can’t think of a single thing that comes close to it. We’ve had medications that have gone bad on us and Ebola scares, but nothing comes close to what this has done. It’s all because of human behavior that I didn’t see coming. I didn’t see this manifestation of people who are selfish, self-centered, super conservative and lost the ability to see what’s good for society over what’s good for themselves. This disease that we’re dealing with is just another part of that whole selfish mentality.”

Several other doctors have written letters and emails to members the Lincoln County Board of Education and at the meeting on the 14th, the board heard a presentation from Dr. Elizabeth Tilson, who serves North Carolina as the State Health Director and the Chief Medical Officer for the Department of Health and Human Services and a brief presentation from Lincoln County Public Health Director Davin Madden. 

Tilson spoke of using a layered approach of protection of which masks are a part of and that there was a higher percentage of children getting sick and some dying, and while they may not get seriously ill, they were efficient spreaders and could pass COVID-19 to teachers, staff, and family members. She also said that the Delta variant was more transmissible. She recommended that the board follow the CDC guidelines and require that students, teachers, and staff wear face coverings while inside, especially now that the predominant strain is the more contagious Delta variant.

At this time, there are 523 positive active cases in Lincoln County and there have been 96 deaths. In the past 14 days, the 0-17 age group represents the bulk of the cases at 36%. The average number of positive cases in the past 14 days is almost 60 per day.

“I hope that someday, sooner rather than later, people, boards, lawmakers and governors will begin to put the health and welfare of children, loved ones and friends before partisan politics and personal choice,” Alford said.

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