County health official discusses reopening

The county’s top health official recently discussed the use of face masks, the danger of COVID-19 and how to prevent a potential resurgence of cases.  

Dr. Christopher Bunce, an infectious disease specialist at Schneck Medical Center in Seymour and the public health officer for the Jackson County Health Department, addressed inconsistencies of reports from various news outlets and health organizations about the virus. 

“There’s constantly evolving science, and obviously, that has led to some misunderstandings. We’re in the middle of an outbreak, so we’re learning things as we’re going,” he said.

Many have downplayed the danger of this virus, likening it to the common flu. Bunce dismissed these claims, saying while it may not be deadly for many, it absolutely can be for others.

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“The virus has proven itself to be extremely strange to doctors and scientists because it causes such a variety of symptoms and such a range of severity. A lot of that has to do with susceptibility. The easiest determining factor is age," he said.

“You can go ahead and do the math of how many people are 60 and above in this county. Those are the people that I care about. Now when you’re 22 and footloose and fancy free, you might not think people who are old count that much, but we do. I’ve also seen 22-year-olds hospitalized with such low oxygen levels that they need to be put on ventilators.”

Bunce further contested this point, using a different illness as an analogy.

“Just because you had it and it was just like a flu doesn’t mean you can dismiss it for other people," he said. "Only a small percentage of people get cancer of the bladder. That doesn’t mean we don’t care about those people. We try to discourage smoking. Why? Because smoking is the No. 1 risk factor for cancer of the bladder.

"Some guy comes along and says, ‘Well, I’ve been smoking for 60 years and I’m doing great.’ Well, that’s not an argument for everyone else," he said. "He can take that one to his grave if he wants, but that’s not an argument we can use as public health advisers.”

Currently, Indiana is in Stage 4 of its five-stage reopening plan. While masks are currently required for many in service industries, in Stage 5, they will become a recommendation. Bunce would like to see many still wear them going forward.

“We’re doing everything now, it’s just that we have some restrictions, like how many people can be in a restaurant and whether or not your barber has to wear a mask. These are requirements now, but once we go to Stage 5, they become recommendations. My goal is to try to make them recommendations with a high degree of compliance to them,” Bunce said.

Hairstylists and restaurant service workers are two positions Bunce believes would be at the highest likelihood of spreading the virus without masks. 

Bunce believes these measures have helped contribute to the statewide flattening of the curve when it comes to positive cases and wants the public to understand the good that these measures have done. 

“I think it’s vitally important that we understand the value of what we did instead of looking at it as just an annoyance that has passed,” he said.

Presently, Bunce said about 97% of the population has yet to be infected with the virus, creating a large susceptible population. This in combination with people increasing close contact indoors in the upcoming colder seasons creates the risk of a second outbreak.

Bunce is optimistic if people are willing to continue to follow current standards of wearing masks in public and socially distancing, any such resurgence can be avoided.

“Stay away from other people and cover your mouth. If you did those two things, we could get this to just go away,” he said. “We don’t need a set of rules. We just need people to follow basic principles. Those principles are distance and barrier. As long as we do that, we’ll get through this just fine.”

Bunce understands many have been resistant to government directives recommending citizens wear masks.

“We have a basic suspicion about the government — government directives, the government controlling our lives,” he said.

Bunce also believes some see the mask as a sign of weakness.

“A lot of people think, ‘Oh, I’m wearing a mask. What is a mask other than a sign that I’m afraid?’ In our culture, we have a lot of that. I don’t think you see that in Japan, where transmission of the virus is very low level," Bunce said.

In terms of how the mask protects, Bunce likened it to coughing into your elbow, a common courtesy measure used to prevent the spread of illness.

“That’s the great thing about the mask. The whole idea is to prevent the dispersion of particles of various sizes, and the mask does that for you,” he said.

The particles he’s referring to are dispersed each time an individual opens their mouth, whether it be to speak, laugh, cough or anything else. A mask reduces the amount of the particles the wearer will spread.

These particles are much less likely to be taken in at increased distances, which is why social distancing guidelines of 6 to 8 feet exist in public settings where individuals are not required to wear masks.

“It’s clear that we understand how the virus is transmitted. It’s not a mystery," he said. "You’re not getting it on toilet seats, you’re not getting it on doorknobs or groceries. Not that it’s impossible, but it’s largely transmitted through face-to-face contact somewhere within a meter. Six feet is a very safe distance. Inside of that, you increase the statistical likelihood that you’re going to take in those droplets."

One place where masks are required is Schneck Medical Center. Despite the fact the facility has admitted more than 50 patients with COVID-19, Bunce believes the use of masks has made it safer than other public areas where they are less common.

“I will submit and I have made this argument that it’s safer to be in a hospital than it is Jay C," he said. "Everyone is wearing masks, they have to, and the infection rate in the hospital is so low, they’re lower than the rate in the community. They’ve done a tremendous job of not transmitting the virus between patients and caregivers, caregivers and caregivers and certainly not caregivers to patients."

Consistent and thorough handwashing is another preventative measure that Bunce encourages.

"Our hands are important because we touch our faces and we touch other people’s hands," he said. "So if you’re going to name one object that’s important, it’s your hands, not your groceries. That’s why handwashing is very important and wearing a mask is important because it contains what’s coming out of my face before it can get to yours."

While clean hands are incredibly important, gloves aren’t necessarily a proper substitute for washing and sanitizing your hands.

“A glove is actually conducive to picking up viruses and germs," Bunce said. "Now they don’t live on there forever. It’s not an environment most viruses want to live on. They want to live inside of cells, so they want to get into places they infect. You can’t wash your gloves, but you can quickly wash your hands."

Indiana is set to enter the fifth and final stage of its reopening plan July 4. At that time, retail stores, malls, restaurants, bars and nightclubs may operate at full capacity; restrictions will be lifted at gyms and fitness facilities; conventions, sporting events, fairs, festivals and like events may resume; and restrictions will be lifted at amusement parks, water parks and other similar facilities.