Epidemiologist Dr. Bonny Specker praises council’s action to keep Brookings’ case count low

Editor’s note: This is the first article in a three-part report on COVID-19, featuring local epidemiologist Dr. Bonny Specker.

BROOKINGS – Dr. Bonny Specker says everyone should think of others and wear a mask to protect people from COVID-19.

“The thing that I find amazing is how many people don’t wear masks. That just blows me away,” said Specker, an epidemiologist. 

The masks help prevent the spread of COVID-19, she said. Because the novel coronavirus is so new, experts don’t know who will have mild symptoms, who will get really sick or die, and who will have longterm health repercussions from it, she said. Because no one knows what consequences could result from contracting the virus, it’s best to avoid getting it.

As of now, there is no vaccine and no proven treatment. 

Specker has been advising the Brookings City Council and keeping the councilors updated on the information coming out about COVID-19. She’s been tracking COVID-19 since early March and has compiled a presentation on the coronavirus that covers historical outbreaks, what we know about COVID-19 so far, what other countries are doing, and the best ways to prevent the spread.

One of the reasons COVID infections are low in this area is the Brookings City Council’s measures to slow the spread, she said.

“The council is pretty proactive, and in the long run, I think that will be good,” Specker said.

Credentials 

Epidemiology is the study of epidemics and how diseases spread. 

“We try to figure out what causes epidemics, which is what this is on a big scale,” Specker said.

Epidemiologists determine what the risk factors are and how a disease spreads in a population, Specker said.

Personally, Specker has been practicing social distancing since March, including shopping online. She walks or bikes almost every day, but other than that, does not go out, she said. Specker’s interview with The Brookings Register was done by telephone. 

She is director of the E.A. Martin Program with South Dakota State University, where she has worked since 1997.

“We’ve done a lot of large studies in South Dakota … mostly related to bone health, infection-type things,” she said of her work.

For about seven years, she and her team have been working with the state Department of Health on mother/child issues, including South Dakota’s high infant mortality rate.

Masks

One misconception about masks is that people think it will prevent them from getting sick.

“They’ll say, ‘Well, I’m young, I don’t need to wear it because I’m not gonna get sick,’” Specker said, frustration coming through in her voice. 

“That’s not why you’re wearing it. You’re wearing it to prevent you from spreading it to other people,” she said. “What they have to realize is that it is for the protection of other people.

“And now it’s gotten so political, and (people are citing) freedom to do this and that, and ‘I don’t need to do this,’ and (she wants to tell them) ‘Be considerate of your fellow human beings,’” Specker said. 

“That just frustrates me,” she said.

Some people don’t wear masks because they don’t believe they work. Do masks help reduce the spread of COVID-19?

“Yes, and that’s all we have at the moment,” Specker said.

Most people put their hand over their mouth or tuck their face into their elbow when they cough or sneeze so they don’t spew germs all over. Specker said that’s not enough with COVID-19.

Even when you talk, you could be “spitting out airborne particles that other people can be exposed to,” she said.

Specker compared wearing masks to secondhand smoke. Laws regulating where you could smoke weren’t popular when passed, but now they are mostly accepted.

“The secondhand smoke affects other people’s health. Well, this virus affects other people’s health,” Specker said. “You shouldn’t have the right to affect other people’s health or make someone else sick.”

She doesn’t agree with the argument that wearing a mask is about “freedom.”

“You’re giving people the freedom to decide whether they could potentially kill someone,” she said. “And that’s not right.”

Low numbers in Brookings County

Some areas across the globe have been hard-hit by COVID-19. Worldwide deaths from COVID-19 have topped 656,000 and there have been more than 16.5 million cases of COVID-19 worldwide, according to the World Health Organization as of July 29.

Some areas of the United States, like New York City, Florida and California, have been hard hit. There have been more than 147,000 deaths and more than 4.2 million cases of COVID-19 in the U.S., according to WHO.

“It seems like people are sort of immune to the numbers now. Like the numbers don’t phase anyone anymore, but that’s a lot of deaths,” Specker said.

To compare, the 1918 flu epidemic killed an estimated total 50 million people worldwide and 675,000 people in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More people died during the 1918 pandemic than the total number of military and civilian deaths that resulted from World War I, according to the CDC. There were three different waves, starting in March 1918 through the summer of 1919.

To give some perspective, the U.S. sustained more than 116,516 deaths in World War I, more than 400,000 in World War II, more than 36,000 in the Korean War, more than 58,000 in the Vietnam War, 294 in the Gulf War, 2,216 in the War in Afghanistan, and 4,497 in the Iraq War.

Brookings’ COVID-19 numbers are low. In South Dakota, there have been 8,641 positive cases and 129 deaths as of July 29. Brookings County has had a total of 111 positive cases and no deaths.  

She said the restrictions by the Brookings City Council have helped with that. 

“Brookings has done a really good job of keeping the numbers pretty low so it isn’t really real (to people here). There’s only been (three) people hospitalized, so it’s unlikely very many people have a personal connection with the people that are being hospitalized and the number of cases have just recently started going up, so it’s been pretty safe,” Specker said.

But since this is a new virus, no one is sure what will happen in the future.

“You don’t know what this virus can do or is gonna do, so you don’t know how you’re gonna react to it,” Specker said.

Contact Jodelle Greiner at jgreiner@brookingsregister.com.

COURTESY OF: The Brookings Register

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