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West Virginia is, once again, at the top of the bad list, leading the nation in the rate of acceleration of new COVID-19 infections. The number of new cases is spreading much faster in West Virginia than any other state. In times of crisis, decisive leadership is needed. Where does it go from here? Has Gov. Jim Justice done all he can do?

While the governor has pleaded, cajoled and dangled lucrative awards to motivate West Virginians to get vaccinated, why not require vaccinations and masks for people when they are in risky situations, such as in our schools?

Justice is like a lifeguard at a popular beach where hungry sharks are roaming the water. Knowing the imminent danger, he warns the swimmers of the sharks, but the swimmers say they have rights; they can swim where and when they want. Our lifeguard feels that he cannot infringe on the swimmers’ rights and does not want to issue the order to evacuate the beach.

This analogy is not only applicable to the governor but to all political leaders who do not have the moral courage to tell their constituents to wear masks and obtain the COVID-19 vaccinations. I have asked several legislators their opinions about a mask mandate, and they responded by saying they see both sides of the issue and it should be left to the individual.

I am wondering where the real leaders are? Where are the political leaders with a backbone and who might qualify for a Profiles in Courage award? It is sad to think that politicians are loathe to take a position, no matter how sensible, in opposition to a vocal minority.

Think back to 30 years ago, when smoking bans were put in place. Smokers protested and said they had a right to smoke where and when they want. Would our governor and legislators, knowing what they know today, be on the fence because they did not want to lose tax revenue from the sales of cigarettes? Fortunately, in the end, the medical experts won out by showing the increased health care costs of smokers, and laws were passed to ban smoking in certain places.

In 1968, only 14% of Americans regularly wore seat belts, even though the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration required lap and shoulder belts to be installed in new cars. Many drivers and passengers complained that seat belts were uncomfortable and restrictive. The idea of mandatory seat belt laws was criticized along ideological lines. Seat belt laws drew fire, based on violation of personal freedom. The battle over seat belt laws reflected widespread ambivalence over the role and value of government regulation in our free society.

The controversy heated up in 1973, when NHTSA required all new cars to have an inexpensive technology that prevented a vehicle from starting if the driver wasn’t buckled up. In 1977, NHTSA passed a regulation that required Detroit automakers to install a passive restraint that would protect a crash-test dummy when they hit a wall at 35 miles per hour.

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One of the first things Ronald Reagan did after being elected president was to rescind the NHTSA rule requiring passive restraints. Insurance companies sued the administration and the case eventually went to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the justices voted unanimously to block the Reagan administration and enforce the NHTSA’s rule. After the ruling, the Reagan administration could not come out and say that seat belts did not work.

In 1901, the city of Boston faced a smallpox epidemic and public health officials in Boston and Cambridge issued a compulsory vaccination order, hoping to reach the 90% vaccination rate required for herd immunity. A Pastor Jacobson refused the vaccination for himself and his son. While the vaccine order was compulsory, it wasn’t a forced vaccination. Those who refused to get vaccinated faced a $5 fine, which is equivalent to $150 today.

Pastor Jacobson appealed his fine and the case was eventually heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1905, as Jacobson v. Massachusetts. Jacobson’s attorney argued that the Cambridge vaccination order was a violation of 14th Amendment rights. At question was whether the “right to refuse vaccination” was among those protected personal liberties.

The Supreme Court rejected Jacobson’s argument and dealt the anti-vaccination movement a stinging loss. The decision established what became known as the “reasonableness” test. The government had the authority to pass laws that restricted individual liberty, if those restrictions (including the punishment for violating them) were found by the court to be reasonable means for achieving public good.

Lagging vaccination rates and climbing case numbers are putting undue pressure on our health care system. Labor Day 2021 COVID-19 cases across the country compared to a year ago show a 350% increase, 158% more hospitalizations and twice as many deaths. Nearly 1,500 Americans are dying every day from the coronavirus. Think about it, these are not just statistics but family members, sons and daughters, mothers and fathers; people we know. Think also about our over-stressed health care workers.

Persuasion and incentives for people to get vaccinated are apparently insufficient to get us to herd immunity. Somewhere around 50% of West Virginians remain unvaccinated. It seems that there will always be a number of people unwilling, for various reasons, to comply. Children and those whose work puts them in contact with the public are being unnecessarily put at risk. Why can’t the governor at least issue an executive mandate that masks must be worn in all public places? It feels like the governor is fiddling while West Virginia is burning.

Our governor and legislators should not hold a dampened finger to the political wind. They must support what is best for the public as a whole, instead of listening to the loudest rabble-rousers. Only blunt pressure from West Virginians and the news media will force the governor and his aides to take effective action to solve this health crisis.

Wes Holden is a retired federal employee living in Sissonville.

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