Community spread of COVID-19 is increasing, just as medical experts predicted. Yet more people are shrugging off safety precautions like mask wearing, ignoring the threat this pandemic presents.

Dr. William Mills, chief medical officer of Upper Allegheny Health System, has a simple, straight-forward message to the public: “Ignoring common sense can be costly.”

There is no question that the hugely contagious virus is in the community.

Mills was dismayed to see a photo of a rally held Wednesday in Bradford where many people weren’t wearing masks, and were standing elbow to elbow, going against all safety protocols for COVID-19.

“While healthcare workers are putting their lives on the line day in and day out to care for patients and risk potential exposure, many people in the community clearly and completely ignore safety,” he wrote in a letter to The Era. “It’s disturbing that some of these same people, who are so cavalier about spreading the virus, could potentially be knocking on the door of BRMC in a couple of weeks looking for our hospital to save their lives.”

The virus doesn’t follow state lines, political party lines, or socio-economic lines.

And, he stressed, it is not a political matter, but is a matter of public health.

“Wearing a mask and maintaining social distance is not a sign of any political affiliation or weakness,” Mills said. “It’s just common sense, like wearing a coat in winter.

“As Americans, we have rights, but we do not have the right to threaten the health and safety of others,” he added.

Mills stressed that his remarks are not intended as a scare tactic, as the science shows that masks and social distancing work.

“I really think people aren’t taking it seriously because we haven’t had it that bad here,” he said. The virus hit in earnest in March, and the governors of New York and Pennsylvania began taking drastic measures in efforts to prevent hospitals from being overrun with more patients than they could handle. “And we saw nothing,” Mills said, “knowing full well this was probably going to come back and bite us.”

Now, “we’re seeing clusters all around Cattaraugus and McKean counties,” he said. “We have a much better idea of how to treat it, after watching New York City.”

However, between the lack of early spread in rural areas and the politicization of the virus response, “people are saying ‘I don’t buy it.’

“Thank goodness 80 percent of the cases have been ‘mild,’” Mills said. But even then, “It’s a big deal.”

Even with the “mild” cases, people who have had it have said it was like the worst flu they’d ever had. “Incredible fatigue, a fever that for some people lasts more than a week. A lot of people have a cough and the breathing issues — even just the subjective sensation that ‘I can’t breathe as well’ is disconcerting. A lot of people do have that loss of smell and taste. That can take a couple months to return.”

Some people are lucky and get few symptoms. For many, it’s proven fatal. There are risk factors, such as age and overall health, but even that is not a guarantee of how one’s body will respond.

It’s a risk that Mills doesn’t want people to take, and, he said, the risk of spreading it before one knows he or she is sick is very high. And that’s not a risk that anyone has the right to assume for someone else.

“If a second wave hits in earnest and our hospitals are pushed to their limits, we will be prepared,” Mills said. “However, the community must start doing their part. It is disrespectful to all those healthcare workers who fight to save lives and protect health for the community to ignore this pandemic.

“It’s time for everyone to step up.”

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