Hoaxes, Physical Distancing and (Un)masking in Small Town America

Janneli F. Miller, PhD   April 18, 2020

I live in a remote rural section of southwestern Colorado, in the four corners region.  Our county has 30,000 people and it didn’t have a case of COVID-19 until Saturday March 28. 

On that day there were 112,000 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus in the US- compared to 583,220 today- a fivefold increase in 2 weeks and a half weeks.  President Trump was seeing off the USNS Comfort as it left for New York City, where 728 people had died at that time. Now the number of fatalities in NYC is 10,058, and we know the ship didn’t help much.

That same day Trump announced he was considering an ‘enforceable’ quarantine for New York, only to change his mind a few hours later, tweeting that quarantine was ‘not necessary.’ Instead of a quarantine he decided to ask the CDC to implement a travel ban, with the CDC confirming the Domestic Travel Advisory for New York, New Jersey and Connecticut the next day.

Tom Hanks and his wife had just returned from their quarantine in Australia, and the first infant died from the virus in Cook County, Illinois- the youngest victim to succumb to COVID-19 at that time.   

Things are moving so fast these days that it is hard to remember what it was like just two weeks ago, when our county recorded its first case.  We were immersed in the news, but New York City is far away and no one we knew was sick or dying.  We heard about flat curves and our county health department was putting out precautionary notices with information that seemed to change daily, but it all seemed a bit surreal.

Even as the health department told us to act as if COVID-19 was already here, we were wondering if, or more likely when, the virus was going to show up.  It had been coming closer and closer all month.  It ran through the Navajo reservation after a Church of the Nazarene service in Chilchinbeto, AZ because one member of the gathering who didn’t know they had COVID-19 coughed, resulting in 27 cases spread all over the reservation as attendees returned home. The reservation now has 813 cases and completed a 57-hour curfew over Easter weekend. Many people don’t have running water, health services are few and far between and Navajo officials and residents are worried.  There are rumors about roadblocks on highways leading in and out of the reservation, and locals in my county are now organizing and delivering food to isolated Navajo communities, since there are only 13 grocery stores on the reservation.

On March 28, COVID-19 had already been confirmed in Farmington, New Mexico, and had just hit Durango, Colorado. The day before, San Juan County, Utah, home to Bears Ears, Comb Ridge, and Valley of the Gods registered its first case- immediately shutting down the entire county to camping and travel for non-residents.  Just 2 weeks earlier, leaders in that same county had asked their Utah governor to “return to normal” because they thought the precautions were an overreaction to the virus.   https://www.sltrib.com/news/politics/2020/03/20/rural-county-leaders-utah/?fbclid=IwAR0JfJLyJdYDktMP_5Nzj_Pk6B-E6Np8HSN8DeWln811yjJ0jcWQ9IAQEy8

We had only been ‘sheltering in place’ for 2 days when we received news of the first case in our county.  It was March 26 when our Democratic Governor Jared Polis made the “lockdown” order, but everything was pretty much closed already. Restaurants and brew pubs were doing take out and curbside pickup, the libraries, bike shop and thrift stores were closed, meetings were virtual, schools had extended their spring breaks in order to shift to online educational strategies, and live music concerts and festivals (a big deal here) had all been cancelled.  River guides were staying home because their trips were off.  The lucky ones were working at home, the unlucky ones held down front lines at grocery stores or quickie mart gas stations, and many more lost their jobs or were furloughed.  Every day brought news of something else being cancelled or closed, and words like “lockdown” and “quarantine,” a part of the national discourse for weeks, were now heard around our county.

“Essential” businesses and activities seemed to be doing well. Farmers and ranchers continued working their fields and pastures, as lambing season began and irrigation ditches started running. The hardware store was open, as were dental offices, auto mechanic shops and natural food stores.  One friend went to a garden center to pick up seeds and soil- as an agricultural supply provider it was considered essential.  A farmer friend I saw at the grocery store said her life hadn’t changed at all, and that actually the current situation was “kinda cool.”  But then, she continued, she wasn’t going to let her dogs socialize with anyone, because the virus “lives for 9 days” on surfaces, including dog fur. Neither of these ideas have yet been confirmed, although the 9 day figure originally came from a retrospective analysis of 22 studies of SARS and MERS published in the Journal of Hospital Infection in early February and hit many popular news outlets.  https://www.journalofhospitalinfection.com/article/S0195-6701(20)30046-3/fulltext

Walking trails and parks around town were now full at all times of day since people were free from their usual working hours and could perform this essential activity at any hour. Parents were both rejoicing about staying home and homeschooling, while complaining that being home with small children all day every day was a bit much.  It’s not that different today.

But by the end of that weekend at the end of March when I checked the data and maps, our county was suddenly in the “red zone,” meaning that it had shifted to “high risk” in a matter of hours. This is because by the time we had 3 cases, 1 person had died, making our case fatality rate 30%.  Yikes.  As I write we are at 12 cases and 2 deaths- a death rate still higher than most regions, even though the numbers are low. 

And just now the articles are coming out about how rural America will be hit hard. 

I provide this information as a background to what seems to be a disturbing reality here in the remote rural west.  While many people do indeed take it seriously there is a fair amount of talk about “hoaxes,” both on the radical left and right, and this is impacting the extent to which public health recommendations are being taken seriously, including physical distancing and mask wearing.

On one side are the conspiracy theory types who are certain the virus has to do with the “New World Order” or 5G or both.  This is exemplified by the video “We’re Living in 12 Monkeys” on YouTube’s Truthstream channel, https://youtu.be/1JLBXfKDbbI, which unpacks the article “We’re Not Going Back to Normal” by Gideon Lichfield, published in the MIT Technology Review on March 17.  The article is used as a basis for how the “government” is going to take over and control us all.  I heard about this in passing, while talking to a neighbor who was walking by.

Others, on FaceBook, Instagram and in person warn about 5G.  The idea, as far as I can tell, is that somehow electromagnetic waves poison us and the coronavirus is really a “toxin” that our bodies excrete in response to a change in the force of the waves.  Wuhan is cited as the first urban area to go 5G, and several doctors, including Thomas Cowan, explain how pandemics are related to changes in radio wave technology. Unfortunately, his video has been taken down by YouTube (evidence that he was correct according to some) but others are onto this topic as well. Sally Fallon Morell, author of the popular cookbook Nourishing Traditions, has a blog post asking if the coronavirus is contagious, and explains there the link between waves and pandemics.

Dr. Andrew Kaufman has put up a power point on YouTube, https://youtu.be/KGGd7-vvd9Y in which he explains how exosomes are “identical” to the corona virus, and that there is no “gold standard” in current COVID-19 testing, meaning that we are getting a lot of false positives, which in turn makes the pandemic seem more serious than it really is.  If you check out that link be sure to read the comments, in which Kaufman is thanked for providing “real” evidence and helping watchers feel safer. 

Over in the UK, people are destroying 5G cell towers, while more and more articles pop up explaining that 5G has nothing to do with COVID-19. https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200406-why-smart-people-believe-coronavirus-myths?ocid=ww.social.link.email  Articles like this are being used by the “conspiracy theorists” as further evidence that “they” don’t want “us” to know the “truth.”

Meanwhile, those who follow our President’s every word are (still) comparing the coronavirus to the flu. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to explain the difference between “prevalence” and “virulence” to intelligent people (not my anthropology students) who still don’t get why this is all such a big deal.  “The flu kills more people and we’re not locked down for it,” is an all too common refrain.  The fact that we have a vaccination for flu, and not for COVID-19, seems to be irrelevant to these folks, who also don’t seem to get what case fatality rates mean or why we should care about them.

Others are wondering why we aren’t jumping on board with the “malaria medicine” promoted by Trump.  This, even as an Arizona man died on March 23 after taking it with his wife upon hearing President Trump’s recommendations. Most recently the NYT reported on April 12 that a small study in Brazil on chloroquine was halted due to deaths among those taking the medicine https://nyti.ms/2RyHKiL   

There really are people who do believe this is a “hoax” and wonder what all the fuss is about, and some of them live in my small town. These ways of thinking, sadly, run along political lines- as we’ve seen with the Democratic governors recommending earlier precautions, while Republican governors wait to see what the President recommends.

This cultural divide is especially disturbing when it comes to public health measures- as evidenced by the recent order to wear masks- and exemplified by my experiences shopping in my small town of 900.  While many of my friends are busy at home sewing masks for distribution to local hospitals, grocery store workers and other mutual aid groups, other residents are flagrant in their violation of the order. 

I went to a Family Dollar four days ago, a day after the order to wear masks went into effect, (although the President said he wouldn’t wear one.)  I had a bandanna covering my face and was shocked to see that I was the only one in the store with a mask.  The employees were not wearing masks, nor were any of the shoppers.  Nobody was staying 6 feet apart from each other, except me as I negotiated the aisles in order to keep away from people while also trying to find what I was looking for on the semi empty shelves.  Once in line, I stood back from the others in front of me, even as the person behind me stepped up within a foot of me.  I was shocked.

After this, I headed over to my local grocery store, where I found people with scarves on waiting outside and a sign on the door stating that only 5 people were allowed in at a time.  After watching several (masked) people leave, a masked check out worker told us we were welcome to come in.  Everyone in the place had on masks and all employees had on gloves.  Several customers wore gloves as well.  And it was “normal”!!!  Nobody seemed to be bothered to wear a face covering- some pulled scarves up over their faces, others had on home sewn masks and a few had the paper medical supply types.  Conversations went on, and people seemed relatively cheerful, while keeping their distance from each other.  

I use these examples as a way to illustrate how uneven and disturbing our country’s response has been, due to, in my opinion, a lack of leadership providing consistent messages in alignment with the latest scientific data and public health recommendations. It’s a travesty that our president has downplayed the risks and placed “the economy” above human life.  Without human and environmental health, there is no “economy”!

I live out in the boonies- it took the virus a while to arrive, and even now our numbers are low, while our risk is high. Yet half the people I see think it’s a hoax, the flu, or a conspiracy, while the other half (I hope it’s half) are taking the precautions seriously.  Our masks- or not- are clear indicators of where we stand in terms of political predilections and pandemic philosophy.

One of the twelve stricken individuals in our county is a (Trump supporting) friend’s brother.  “It’s no big deal,” my friend said about his brother’s illness, seeming kind of miffed that he himself had to self-quarantine, because our county is contact tracing and recommending all those close to the infected individuals self-isolate.  This Trump supporter followed the county health department recommendations, only because it was his brother who was sick.  But the fact that his brother is OK and that he himself didn’t get ill indicates to him not that the precautions work, but instead that the virus really isn’t too serious.

In this kind of situation one wonders how effective the precautions can be.  I will not go to Family Dollar again, but others will and do- the most cars I see in one place in my small town are in the parking lot at the Family Dollar, or in line at the liquor store take out window. People I know call each other up in order to meet at the local brew pub so they can sit in their cars and drink their take-out beers “together,” while the Mexican restaurant is making a good business selling large take out margaritas in Styrofoam cups.  Who cares if alcohol depresses the immune system or Styrofoam is environmentally unsound?

https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/10report/chap04b.pdf  Even the Huffington Post is telling us that drinking right now is not good for our immune systems, but that doesn’t matter around here- only “liberals” read the Huff Post, or ‘believe’ in science, right? https://www.huffpost.com/entry/how-alcohol-affects-immune-system_l_5e8f84c5c5b6d641a6bbf838 

Given this context, I worry about our county.  We’re an at-risk community because of our demographics- 22% of our residents are over 65 and 22% under 18.  13% have no medical insurance, 13% have a disability, and the per capita income is $25K (2018).  There is one hospital for 30,000 people, which has 4 beds in the ICU unit.  To get to any other medical facility you have to fly out, or drive for an hour and a half, minimum.  The first victim of COVID-19 who tested positive here was flown to a regional medical center and died there.  Drive through testing became available at the hospital last week, but it costs $75. The medical center website indicates test results will be available in 2-7 days because they have to be sent out to labs in other areas of our state or even out of state. Yet both people I know who have been tested waited 9 days for their results, which means our case numbers lag behind reality by almost 2 weeks.  One person I know, age 32 with flu like symptoms, found out the cost and didn’t get tested because he couldn’t afford it.  Others think there is no need- it’s not contagious, or they don’t have symptoms, which right now is the only way you are eligible for a test here.

Besides this, as a rural community in a part of the country known for its natural beauty and National Parks, we’re a popular tourist destination.  Although officials have recently closed all State Parks and camping facilities in the National Forest, those who are more well off are taking advantage of their “free” time by visiting our neck of the woods.  The mountain bike trails are full, and hordes (yes hordes) of SUV’s w/ bicycles on the back drive through town on their way to popular mountain biking spots. Skiers and snowboarders are climbing up snowy mountainsides and getting caught in avalanches, receiving national publicity for their feats. https://www.outsideonline.com/2411094/backcountry-accidents-coronavirus-colorado

Second home owners are being told to “stay away,” in some small mountain towns, including Aspen and Telluride, https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/us/coronavirus-in-colorado-pitkin-county-tells-visitors-its-time-to-go-home/ar-BB11HNX4 , but two houses down from mine there is a house owned by people from Arizona who just showed up, “for a month,” said the owner. The house, usually empty, is now occupied by the owner’s (Chinese) wife, their 3-month-old baby, 2-year-old son and his wife’s elderly Chinese national father, who speaks no English.  How many others like them have decided to “wait it out” here in our small community, where the hospital has 4 ICU beds and individuals have to be flown out for further care?

In spite of the risk I am acutely aware of, I find that I have conversations around town daily with people who minimize the pandemic, due to the explanations above.  Either right or left, Republican or Democrat (or independent or non-voter) the assumptions these people hold dictate their behavior, and they hold their beliefs tightly. 

I don’t see any clear results of the public health messages.  Trump says one thing, Fauci and Birx say another, and people in rural Colorado carry on, without masks, or with them, in a manner as haphazard as our administration’s messages have become.  One restaurant is closed and offers take out on the weekends, where your pizza is handed to you by a masked employee and there are “no touch” payment options.  Down the street, the burger joint is open daily and no one there, employees or customers, wears masks or gloves.

I don’t go to any stores regularly and haven’t eaten out in over a month.  I’ve lost income, I live alone and sorely miss human companionship and camaraderie, but I’m not anxious and fearful and I do wash my hands regularly and stay 6 feet apart from anyone I might meet on my walks around town to the post office or the grocery store.  I sanitize my shopping bags, door handles, and wallet after I go out.  I do pet dogs, and I’m not sick- but what will I do if I do become ill?

I’m an educated medical anthropologist with a PhD and I take the pandemic seriously even as I’m fascinated by the multiple reactions that my friends and neighbors have to the crisis.  For some, it’s not even a crisis, for others it’s an inconvenience, and for others it’s a welcome respite from the stresses of their jobs, or a reason to “vacation” in their second home.  Many people sit home in front of their screens, zooming with friends and family, or watching wide eyed as the New World Order dictates their reality and confirms their worst fears.  “Didn’t you hear Trump refer to the “Deep State?’’ a neighbor asks me. https://www.westernjournal.com/watch-dr-faucis-face-trump-calls-deep-state-dept-best-thing-see-day/

As days go by and the restrictions continue, I take advantage of the low population density and wonderful outdoor opportunities in my community to stay both physically and mentally healthy.  I still have the freedom to walk my dog out in the woods or red rock canyons without a mask on.  I have a big yard and can spend time working in the garden, listening to bird songs and breezes in the trees, or sitting quietly at sunset to watch the sky change color.  My local library places our books out on a cart for us to pick up after we order them online.  A neighbor with a new puppy comes by to let her pup play with my dog. 

There is a lot to be thankful for.  I, along with many others, hope that the pandemic will show us how to be better humans who take care of each other and our precious earth; humans who design systems and institutions that serve all of us- because, as the pandemic has ever so intensely demonstrated, we are all connected, and the suffering of some does indeed impact us all- no matter what we may or may not believe.

Let’s work together to make a better world- for everyone. 

Dr. Janneli F. Miller is a Medical Anthropologist, freelance writer, retired midwife and health care practitioner living and working in SW Colorado.  She teaches anthropology (online) at Pueblo Community College. 

One thought on “Hoaxes, Physical Distancing and (Un)masking in Small Town America

  1. Spread your message, it is truthful and yet hopeful. As this virus moves on, some people will change their attitude and many won’t, of course. The future has always been uncertain.

    Like

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