Arkansas’ top health official is calling on state citizens to work together to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dr. Nate Smith, the outgoing Arkansas Department of Health head, told reporters after the Friday press conference that there has been an inordinate focus on individual rights at the expense of the collective good during the COVID-19 pandemic. Specifically referencing masks, Smith said that public health measures are designed to help control the spread and prevent individuals from passing the virus to others.
“We’re not asking people to do something that is actually all that hard or that is not in their own collective interest, we are asking them to do something to help their own communities. I think there’s confusion out there. The science clearly points to the guide of masks not so much in protecting me but in source control to keep us from infecting one another. There’s not really a question of the science, I think they get on social media sometimes that’s played up, they don’t work, we’ve talked about that so part of it is education and messaging. Then this issue of rights “no one is going to tell me what to do” we need to get beyond that,” he said.
“With COVID-19 there’s no us and them, it’s all us. If there is a ‘them’ it’s the virus.”
On Thursday, July 16, Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed an executive order mandating face coverings in Arkansas, starting on Monday, July 20. This statewide mandate comes after weeks of calls for such an order. Previously, Hutchinson had addressed the matter of mask usage as a matter of personal responsibility and education and said that he was not looking to mandate mask usage.
Local municipalities, including Fayetteville and Little Rock, had resorted to executive orders and other measures to compel mask usage before Hutchinson announced that cities and towns would be allowed to adopt a model ordinance on masks.
However, the continued rise of COVID-19 cases, particularly with the imminent opening of schools in the state, as well as counsel from health care officials persuaded Hutchinson to sign the executive order. “The number of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are numbers that speak for themselves and indicate that we need to do more. Secondly, I have listened to doctors and nurses who are on the frontlines of this fight against COVID-19, and they ask for the public to do more,” Hutchinson said on July 16.
Having a mask mandate, according to Smith, is critical for protecting the health needs of Arkansas as a whole. This focus, he said, has been lost in recent months as masks have become an increasingly polarized subject.
“From the very beginning, we’ve tried to talk about this from a public health standpoint. We’re not asking people to do something that’s not in their best interest to begin with. In healthy societies that survive and thrive, people are not just looking out for their own interest, they’re looking out for their neighbors and especially for the people that are the most vulnerable and in most faith traditions there’s this element in considering the needs of others at least in accordance with your own and that seems to have gotten lost a lot in this focus on individual rights,” Smith said.
Creating a consistent message for public health matters is an essential part of containing COVID-19, and Smith admitted that the state would need to improve its messaging to convey the importance of helping others.
“We need to do a better job at messaging this so that people understand this is valuable, this is impactful and this is something that really does help other people.”
While the new mask mandate comes with penalties attached for violation, Smith said that he is less concerned with enforcing these violations than in improving the public education and messaging for Arkansans. “We have to work together to survive this and to overcome it, that’s why I’m not as focused on enforcement as I am trying to get the message out in a way that people can receive it because most Arkansans they really do care about one another. If you ask them to do something to help their neighbor, most of them are going to do it.”
Reporting contributed by Madeline Burke
Image from April 1 press briefing with Dr. Nate Smith and Gov. Asa Hutchinson