Garold Minns, MD, remembers the good ol’ days – those halcyon years leading up to March 2020 when he could reliably call himself the invisible man on public-health matters.
Sedgwick County’s health officer since 2008, Minns is the physician working behind the scenes monitoring local influenza and infectious disease outbreaks, including nearly eradicated diseases such as tuberculosis and measles – those kinds of quaint public health issues that come and go with barely a blip on the media’s radar.
Not so much anymore.
Minns, an infectious disease expert who is dean of the University of Kansas School of Medicine-Wichita, gets recognized a lot these days and in the most unlikely places – and it still doesn’t fail to surprise him. “I was just checking out in a grocery store and the clerk handed me my receipt and said, “Boy, I’m glad I don’t have your job!’”
First of all, Minns wondered, how on earth did she know who he was? Second, he said, she had a point.
“I understand what she’s saying,” Minns said. “There are days I wish I didn’t have my job. I can’t disagree with her. On the other hand, it’s a job that needs to be done. This too will pass.”
Minns is walking a tightrope of a job these days, placed in the unenviable position of balancing the health and wellness of Sedgwick County citizenry against the health and welfare of Sedgwick County commerce and viability. Are we being too cautious? Are we careful enough?
He analyzes data as it pertains to COVID-19, confers and consults with state and national leaders, and advises Sedgwick County Commissioners on how best to move forward with lessening or tightening restrictions.
But did he make the right call when he signed the stay-at-home order back on March 24, days before Gov. Laura Kelly issued a statewide one? He gets feedback from both ends of the spectrum, from physicians and the public. But in the end, it’s his call – and safety ultimately prevails.
“I think the jury’s still out,” Minns said. “We’re not out from this virus yet – it’s still circulating in the community. That forces me to ask, how many deaths justifies what we did? That’s a pretty hard question to answer. Obviously one of our jobs it to prevent premature deaths.”
As of May 17, Sedgwick County counted 535 cases of COVID-19 with 20 related deaths, much less than the state’s total of 8,340 cases with 172 deaths, and far less than New York’s 350,000 confirmed cases and 22,619 deaths.
Perhaps it was Minns’ quick call-to-action that helped prevent Wichita from a vicious outbreak like other parts of the country, and even the state.
“Education is very important to preventing infections like this,” Minns said. “But as with anything in life, we can overdo it and scare people. I don’t believe in scare tactics or overblowing it – it’s not like Ebola, which is almost a death sentence if you get it, but it is a somewhat unusual virus. No one had immunity to it. It spreads more quickly and it seems to have a higher mortality rate.”
That’s also why Minns likes to emphasize how many people have recovered from COVID-19 as well (361 recoveries in Sedgwick County as of May 17).
In his role as county health advisor, Minns is knee-deep in data, advising county leaders on what he knows about the virus and identifying risk areas. He said it’s really not his burden to second guess whether he’s been too strict or too lenient in his recommendations to prevent COVID from spreading – that’s up to historians and the public to decide whether the consequences justified his actions.
But Minns can point out that Sedgwick County so far has not seen a spike in cases, and hospitals are not overwhelmed here like they are in New York, Seattle or Italy – all without the implementation of what Minns calls “draconian restrictions” on people’s liberty. People stayed home and businesses were willing to shut down and prevent transmissions, he said.
“That has been somewhat successful and helped us prevent an Italy or a New York City,” Minns said. “We’re trying to walk a fine line in the middle. We can’t eradicate the virus without totally destroying our economy. On the other hand, if we go back to the Wild West and open everything back up like it was before, we’re going to have a problem similar to New York and Seattle.”
So Minns’ challenge right now, he said, is to keep educating people on how to be safe. The COVID threat isn’t gone and the need to practice prevention tactics is still important. Minns shakes his head at the vitriolic debates in the media or people on the street acting like this isn’t a problem that can affect them.
“How much can we convince the public to restrict contact with other people, continue to have church services online and wear masks?” Minns said. “We have no option to eradicate this virus until we have medicine or a vaccine. We probably don’t need to absolutely stay in the house, but when we do go out, common sense is to wear a mask, even if you don’t feel like it.”
Minns gets it. The health threat has gone on a little longer than he initially hoped it would. He’s sick of the word “COVID” and can hardly stand to watch TV anymore. He hasn’t seen his grandchildren in months (except through FaceTime), and he misses music theater and nights out on the town. His garden has never looked better. Yes, Minns said, he’s tired of it all, too.
He needs physicians to help him by educating their patients. To reach out on EMRs and other communication platforms and explain why wearing masks and keeping distances are important. Patients will listen to them, Minns said. An easing of restrictions on a statewide level does not mean all is safe and back to normal.
“We’re not done,” Minns said. “We’re trying to retain essential functions of our business and economics, but we’re walking a fine line, a tightrope. Ask yourself the essential question – what can we live without for a year? Because it’s going to take at least that long.
“It’s impossible to make everyone happy, but, in the end, it’s a small sacrifice. The worst is yet to come if we open too much, too fast, and people don’t take care.”