Memorize these figures: 62,000 and 83,019. The first is the high-end estimate of U.S. deaths attributed to influenza during an entire annual flu season. The second is the number of Americans who have died of the novel coronavirus in roughly the last two months.
I use this comparison because it’s part of the rejoinder I recently sent to a family member who tried to tell me that COVID-19 was basically just like the flu. Said unnamed loved one charged that the virus was being played up as a “plague” by the media and politicians. My family shouldn’t be holed up “at home in terror,” she said.
This is the same family member who has demonstrated a pattern of eschewing peer-reviewed science in favor of conspiracy theories and other outlier claims spun by internet snake oil purveyors. I mean, why take advice from renowned medical experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci when you can read some backwater doctor’s summation on a random godaddy.com page?
She may as well have called the virus “fake news.” The tone she imparted to this career journalist dripped with condescension. Can you visualize the flames shooting out of my ears? Let’s just say I was more than a little peeved.
To my disbelief, despite the warning I sounded in response—which included links to reputable sources that underscore the flu-coronavirus false equivalency—that same family member and another went to the Cottonwood Rodeo on Sunday. The event reportedly was attended by a few thousand individuals and, based on the video footage I watched, that includes lots of little kids. As a parent, that alone triggered my expletive reflex.
Shasta County’s Health & Human Services Agency issued a swift response to clear up any confusion about the threat to public health: “Mass gatherings are very high risk events that can spread COVID-19 to many individuals at one event.”
Indeed, that’s why most states have implemented shelter-in-place mandates. The body count noted above—the equivalent of a metro not much smaller than the population of Chico—has occurred with social distancing in place. We’ll have to wait and see whether future infections get traced back to Cottonwood.
A month ago, that aforementioned family member—who happens to be in a vulnerable category—was as cautious as one should be during this pandemic. But like others who have jumped head first into the virus-dismissing echo chamber, her tone changed in recent weeks.
As I write this, literally hours after learning she went to the rodeo, I’m still fuming. While some of my ire is directed at the guy who organized it, there are plenty of clowns in this show. Take, for instance, the Shasta County sheriff who knew about the event but chose not to shut it down. A large share of the blame goes up the chain to the elected North State politicians who’ve been needling Gov. Gavin Newsom to loosen restrictions in this rural area, taking to social media with rhetoric that gives constituents a false sense of security.
One of the worst offenders—the chief clown in Podunk town—is Rep. Doug LaMalfa. He continues parroting President Trump’s dangerous talking points, flat out lies about the spread of the virus and the government’s efforts to protect the public. Last week, for example, LaMalfa wrote on social media that “America leads the world in COVID-19 testing.” That’s patently false. In fact, per capita, when compared only with other highly impacted countries, the U.S. ranks ninth in testing.
Here in Butte County, just 1,950 residents—less than 1 percent of the population—have been tested for COVID-19. We’re trailing the state average of 2.6 percent.
It’s important to take into consideration the dearth of testing, and not simply rely on the number of confirmed cases or the fact that nobody has died in Butte County. Those things don’t tell the whole story. But I suspect our relatively low rate and a recent two-week gap between the first 16 cases and the next two is behind the apathy. Then, on Monday of this week, two more were reported, bringing the number to 20, plus a confirmed case under investigation. One person is hospitalized.
This indicates community spread is ongoing. That’s not surprising considering California is trending upward in positive cases. We need to keep in mind that people can be asymptomatic and spread the disease. At the same time, we should learn from other regions that ended stay-at-home mandates too soon and transformed into deadly hotspots.
Believe me, I get the concerns about the economy. I lost my job on the same day Newsom shut down the state. The closure wiped out the businesses that filled the CN&R’s coffers. But I also know that dining out, getting a haircut and, yes, gathering at rodeos and other events—the kind of things that you’d ordinarily find advertised in the paper—is not worth my life.
Butte County may not be home to the kind of Darwinian display that took place in Cottonwood over the weekend, but I wouldn’t be surprised if something was on the horizon. I ventured out last week for the first time in a long while. Among the approximately two dozen shoppers in my neighborhood drug store, only yours truly and one other donned masks. Strangely, the employees weren’t wearing any.
My husband has been the primary member of our household to pick up groceries since the shelter-in-place order on March 19, and he’s observed a downward trend in the use of face coverings. We’re regular Costco shoppers and were happy to hear about the company’s mask requirement. In fact, once things do open back up, my retail habits will largely be guided by such policies.
The irony of the “get back to life as usual” attitude adopted in Cottonwood—both by the scofflaw rodeo organizer and attendees—is that it has set back commerce as a direct result. According to the county’s Health & Human Services Agency’s health officer, Dr. Karen Ramstrom, “[the event] jeopardizes the ability for all Shasta County businesses to move forward into full Stage 2 reopening, which delays our economic recovery.”
I wouldn’t be surprised if the rodeo gets sued by businesses that otherwise would have opened sooner or folks who become ill from contact during the event.
As for my relatives, well, let’s just say it’s going to take some time for my anger and disappointment to subside. It comes from a place of love and concern for their well-being. I hope they remain healthy, in which case they’ll probably scoff at all of this. But I really fear the alternative, and they would, too, if they believed what experts are saying.
One thing is certain: They won’t be seeing me or my family anytime soon. As much as I love them, I won’t take the risk.