Mercy COVID unit

A HEALTH CARE WORKER WEARING A PROTECTIVE GOWN moves respiratory equipment toward a patient room on a COVID unit inside Mercy Hospital in Springfield.

Sometimes mistakes happen. I made a colossal mistake on Friday when I started reading Facebook comments.

The focal point of the argument was physical health vs. mental health, and which should be preserved with higher priority. The problem is that the question was posed in an either-or fashion, and it’s very seldom that a matter of health can be debated in total absolution.

While social media arguments can be a great source of inspiration for columns like this one, they seldom leave me feeling positive about our ability as a society to debate, decipher and solve problems together. We certainly have problems related to the COVID-19 pandemic to solve, and it’s not just about how to treat a disease we still know relatively little about in the overall scheme of the world’s deadliest and most infectious diseases.

We know very little about the long-term affects of COVID-19, and that includes the mental health impacts the COVID-19 patients and those otherwise impacted by the pandemic will feel for years to come. That doesn’t mean that the future is hopeless, but it means that there will be some very real mental health consequences from 2020 that many in our community will deal with for a while, perhaps even manage for the rest of their lives.

Anecdotally, I have a friend who was hospitalized for treatment of COVID-19. I can gratefully say he is back at home and back at work today. I wouldn’t say he’s made a full recovery, however. He can get short of breath walking to the mailbox and back, lifting and moving items in his garage, or wrestling around in playful manner with his son. He has to move slowly and be more careful than he did before COVID-19. The physical effects linger in his lungs. It’s only natural that he’s going to feel sad and angry about these effects sometimes.

For COVID-19 patients who were pulled close to death’s door but managed to escape with the help of hospitalization and treatment, the long term physical effects will also be lasting and real. That was the forgotten piece of the poorly-constructed argument I found myself reading.

The arguer made a blanket statement that a person’s mental health was more important than physical health. I want to be clear that I am keenly aware of the severity of some mental health conditions. There are mental conditions that are downright debilitating, and many people have them. However, in the most severe of life-saving situations, physical health must be the top concern. If a living organism stops breathing or its heart stops beating, it ceases to be.

I think I understand what the original arguer attempted to convey, that there are many persons here in Christian County struggling with mental health issues of all types, and just because the rest of us can’t see physical evidence of those conditions, it doesn’t mean they aren’t real. Mental health conditions have very real symptoms and consequences that can often manifest as physical symptoms, and those certainly should not be ignored or left untreated.

The thing about infectious diseases, especially this one, is the key word “infectious.” It is the rate at which the COVID-19 virus spreads that makes it exceptionally dangerous. It is the reproduction rate that is the reason why we are collectively taking so much action. The good news for Missourians is that our state’s effective reproduction rate (expressed as the R-naught value) is at 1.01, but that’s far higher than its low of 0.87 on April 15. That means the average person who contracts COVID-19 spreads it to one other person, allowing the virus to spread at a steady rate. Ideally, we will work together to get this R-naught value below 1.0.

When the spread of the virus is no longer as aggressive as it is now, we can ease back on the precautions we take and eventually leave our face coverings at home. 

So, yes, wearing an uncomfortable face covering is highly unpleasant. And, yes, for a percentage of the population dealing with mental health conditions, face coverings will trigger some issues and symptoms that must be managed. However, I argue that it’s much better to plan to manage a mental health condition than it is to worry about a sudden loss of heart and lung function.

That’s why I still wear my mask, and I wear it wherever I go. I don’t want to carelessly breathe out a virus that a person with more vulnerable lungs breathes in, setting off a chain of events that leads to their last breath.

—Rance Burger

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