COVID-19 has confounded scientists and made fools of politicians. Early assumptions that it would subside thru the summer (as does the annual flu) have clearly proven wrong, especially across the southern United States.

The major flare-ups from Florida and Alabama across to Arizona and California took place as many governors began to “re-open for business.” They were following President Trump’s urging, and that of many business groups, but ignoring medical advice.

Here Americans were acting like citizens in many countries, eager for release from confinement, anxious to see family/ friends, just wanting to return to normal. News media from around the world have shown unmasked folks crowding bars, shopping districts and beaches.

But a vaccine for COVID-19 can be developed/tested/mass-produced at earliest by winter, even on fast-track. Thus we will probably return to lockdown, or accept a new normal of widespread illness, overcrowded hospitals and enough mortality to lower our national life expectancy (already among the lowest in the developed world).

Other complications include the trend for COVID-19 to afflict younger people, and for some who survive to experience lingering neurological effects of unknown duration. It seems to be evolving as it spreads around the world, in what appear to be recurring waves.

One aspect of U.S. history, our “inalienable rights” in the Declaration of Independence, may put us at greater risk than other countries. Most nations and cultures have a stronger tradition of shared responsibility, of “All for one, one for all,” which in the USA has been diluted by the “rugged individualism” of our frontier mythology.

Unique in the world, we have a history of resistance to our national government mandating safety and public health measures, except in wartime. We were perhaps the last major nation to require auto seat and shoulder belts, and we have active/ intentional (parental) noncompliance with childhood vaccinations.

And this is where our leadership has failed us all. Regular photos of our president and (often) vice president without masks model a defiant ignorance, a “macho” stupidity, which too many are copying.

Pres. Trump recently told a rally that testing had caused the spike in covid-19 cases, then said he was kidding, and then said, “I don’t joke.” Whatever you might understand from those statements, two facts are clear: first, testing doesn’t cause disease, it only confirms its presence, and secondly, this is not leadership.

COVID-19 is contagious before many people even suspect they are sick. Their coughs and sneezes can spread virus well over three feet, hence the two yard recommended spacing.

The sick person’s mask (whether or not they know they are sick) provides up to 95% of the protection between two masked individuals, while the non-sick person’s mask only adds another 5-20%. But the mask must cover both the nose and mouth, or it’s just a chin-sling.

To repeat, your mask protects others, and their mask protects you. Failure to wear a mask while shopping endangers others, especially the (often) minimum-wage workers (AND their families) in mini-marts, gas stations, and grocery stores.

I reactivated my RN license and have returned to (part-time) work in a Philadelphia hospital. I do not see this as a suicide mission, but I know it will take conscientious practice of “universal precautions” (regarding ALL as infected).

On one inpatient unit in which I oriented, only two RNs out of over a dozen did not get COVID-19 when it first reached Philadelphia. But no hospital staff died, and procedures were quickly implemented to minimize the chance of a reoccurrence.

So please urge your family and friends to wear masks, use physical distancing, and patronize stores that follow the mandated mask requirement. Many of us remember the “No shoes, no shirt, no service” signs back in the “flower children” era, allegedly implemented for health reasons.

Well, the mask is only about health; it is not about political correctness or big government. It’s about health.

Bryn Hammarstrom lives in Middlebury Center, is a registered nurse and has a long-time interest in environmental issues.