Pandemic calls for local leadership and trusted voices

By Al Cross

Kentucky Health News
This was originally published as a column in KyForward.com.

Norman Chaffins and Donnie Keeton probably never expected to see their name in a column about Kentucky politics. But they’re elected officials who have done the right thing when it comes to the coronavirus, and they and their kind should be exalted.

Chaffins, a Republican, is the sheriff of Grayson County, in west-central Kentucky. Keeton, a Democrat, is a magistrate in Morgan County, in Eastern Kentucky. They both got the virus, and they went above and beyond the call of duty, telling others about it.

And they think we should all be wearing masks, probably the biggest single thing we can do to thwart the virus and its covid-19 disease – but something that has become way too controversial and politicized, just like so much else about the pandemic.

After recounting his covid horrors in a Facebook post, Chaffins, 51, wrote, “I’m telling you this because I want you to wear your mask. Not because I am the sheriff, not because the governor said so, and not because the business tells you to. I want you to wear a mask because I do not want anyone to have to go through what I went through. I want you to wear a mask because I don’t want my kids or grandbabies to get sick. I want you to wear a mask because it’s just the right thing to do. It may not 100% guarantee that you won’t contract it, but wearing a mask will certainly reduce your chances. Please understand this: I am not telling you to wear a mask. We are not going to fine you or insist that you wear a mask. As your friend, I am asking you to wear a mask when you are around others and when you go out into public at least until there is a vaccine.”

Chaffins, a former state trooper, published 929 words on July 12. Keeton, a disabled heavy-equipment operator, kept his July 16 post simple, but in white type on a red background: “For those who don’t think covid-19 is real, it is. I tested positive. . . . Sue hasn’t got her results yet.” (His wife tested negative.)

Yes, Keeton knew people who didn’t think the virus was real, he told me: “They think it’s all about the election, or it’s going to be over after the election.”

That’s what happens when a president politicizes public health, downplays a deadly pandemic and uses Twitter to peddle conspiracy theories and quack medicine, apparently in an effort to so confuse Americans that they don’t know what to believe.

Keeton, 52, told me he voted for Trump because “It’s kind of hard to go with the national Democratic Party right now,” but he had the president’s words in mind when he told his local newspaper, the Licking Valley Courier, “It’s not a hoax and it’s probably not going away anytime soon.”

Trump implied Feb. 28 that the pandemic, or Democrats’ criticism of his response to it, was Democrats’ “new hoax” after their failed impeachment of him. He walked that back, but Keeton told me that the phrase probably gave a lot of people the wrong idea.

Trump was elected partly because a lot of Americans, especially in rural areas, thought they were being left behind and disregarded by the urban elite. Many if not most of those people have never liked elites and experts telling them what to do (remember the debates about seat belts?), and Trump appealed to their resentment.

That approach turned dangerous when Trump started contradicting public-health experts and scientists, but he was operating in a friendly environment, as the unchallenged boss of a political party that has fueled and capitalized on skepticism about science, primarily the evidence of climate change. But it is also a friendly place for skepticism about vaccines, which could be the long-term obstacle in quashing the coronavirus.

That’s why it’s more important than ever for public officials at all levels to set good examples. Chaffins told me he has tested negative for the virus, and doesn’t think government should mandate masks, but he wears one to be “a good role model.”

And in an age where social media have more sway than news media, it’s important to hear covid-19 stories from authoritative victims. Chaffins said his nurse practitioner told him his post was helpful because “a lot of people don’t know anybody who’s had this and had a bad case of it.”

In other words, stories about people you know always have greater impact. Licking Valley Courier Editor Miranda Cantrell put a note at the end of her story about Keeton asking other victims to tell their stories, because locals wonder “whether the effects are as severe as mainstream media outlets have reported.”

Yes, they can be that severe, but many don’t trust those outlets – especially after four years of “fake news” bashing from a president who has uttered more than 20,000 falsehoods. Local news media are more trusted, so they need to step up, tell these stories and help their audiences understand how to deal with the pandemic. The politicians can only go so far.