Two weeks ago, a police deputy in Maryland shot and killed a groundhog. Having reviewed the unedited videotape of this encounter, I concluded that, although the action was apparently consistent with Maryland police guidelines, it was ridiculous. Some comedians have noted that the groundhog failed to respond to repeated instructions to get down on the ground and put its hands up. All joking aside, I felt that the entire incident was emblematic of a lack of judgment permeating our society. What made this shooting especially nonsensical was that the deputy had been summoned to confront the offending groundhog because it was interfering with traffic on a two-lane highway. As the animal wandered back and forth across the roadway, traffic backed up as drivers on both sides of the roadway tried to avoid hitting it.

The video of the incident shows that the deputy made several attempts to get the animal off the road, but the groundhog insisted on walking back and forth across the highway. As the deputy faced off with the uncooperative mammal, the groundhog walked toward him. The deputy said that the animal threatened him: he was concerned that it might have rabies. He fired his gun from about five feet from the groundhog. The animal dropped onto the pavement and writhed in pain. A second bullet ended the fatal encounter.

For those of you who do not see the irony in this misadventure, allow me to explain. The animal was a problem because the drivers encountering it were trying to avoid injuring or killing it. The police were called in an effort to save the animal. The police deputy’s solution was to kill the animal. If he had not intervened, one of Maryland’s less compassionate drivers might have struck and killed the animal. Alternatively, the groundhog might have just tired of Maryland’s asphalt and wandered off into the bushes. The call to the police sealed the animal’s fate.

An equally telling exhibit of poor judgment was reported from Houston, Texas, the land of “stand your ground’” and shoot if someone scares you. A woman reported that she saw a man looking through her bedroom window. She did not recognize him; consequently she got a rifle and fired at him several times through the wall of her bedroom. Despite not being able to see her intended target, she managed to kill him. Her justification was that he frightened her. Apparently that is good enough in Texas. Why do people in other countries marvel at our firearms laws?

Examples of questionable judgment abound, and our own community is not exempt. At the most recent Easton town meeting, one (and only one) of the nearly 50 attendees refused to cover her nose and mouth with a mask in compliance with state mandated protocols for indoor gatherings. When she was specifically asked to comply with the state ordinance, she announced, “I already had Covid.”  With further criticism of her behavior and urging by town officials, she grudgingly slung the mask under her chin, as if to demonstrate that she was willing to compromise a little and to accommodate the dozens of other appropriately masked attendees.  

But after 18 (or maybe 19) months of a pandemic and the wide adoption in Connecticut of vaccines and the unavoidable fatigue that comes with restricted mobility and activity, why did this act of civil disobedience matter? It mattered because it put at risk the health and lives of the other people at the meeting. It mattered because it was an act of disdain, not of justifiable defiance. It was not based on the principle that it was the right thing to do, but rather on the impulse to demonstrate independence in opposition to measures adopted to protect our neighbors, our children and ourselves.

To anyone who insists on exposing themselves and others to infection or re-infection, I say, “Don’t be my guest.” Don’t come to the school my grandchild attends.  Don’t come to indoor meetings where dozens of people who are trying to stop this pandemic have gathered. The maskless offenders invariably claims that it is their constitutional right to ignore these mandated health measures and risk their own lives, if they are so inclined. Oddly enough, this precise issue was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1904 in Jacobson v. Massachusetts, and it ruled that the government can mandate and enforce edicts restricting personal health choices if those choices are at odds with measures adopted to promote the general welfare. The Court noted that individual liberty is not absolute.

I met with a middle-aged lawyer three weeks ago who told me that he had been infected with Covid at the beginning of the epidemic. Despite being in good health prior to this incident, he was nearly killed by the disease. He described the horrific head and back pain, raging fevers, shortness of breath, and loss of taste and smell, all typical of the infection. He recovered and got the vaccine as soon as he was eligible.  Despite the common misconception that once you have had Covid you have full immunity and cannot contract it again or spread it to others, and despite the common misconception that the vaccines make you virus-proof, he was re-infected, presumably with the delta variant.   

This is a virus that is content to populate your nasopharynx, that is, your nose and sinuses, and float invisibly out of you on mucus droplets that you cannot see or sense. These invisible infectious packets are in the air you exhale and can drift feet or yards to people in your vicinity. The virus need not give you symptoms.  It can be transmitted from an asymptomatic person, one with no fever, cough, loss of taste or headaches, and kill or cripple the unsuspecting recipient of the contaminated air. That the person inhaling nearby is wearing a suitable mask provides some protection, but everyone in a closed environment is more protected if everyone in the room, including those that have had Covid or have been vaccinated, wear masks. After more than 650,000 Americans have died from this virus, and several million have been permanently disabled, why does this simple act of hygiene face push back? Are we really that slow to learn?  Remember Typhoid Mary.  She felt fine, despite carrying a deadly germ.  She never got typhoid fever; it was the people that she cooked for that got sick and died.

If you go to an indoor gathering of dozens of people and refuse to cover your mouth and nose with a mask, you might as well wear a sign that says, “I don’t care if you live or die.” They had to put Typhoid Mary in isolation to protect the general public. What must we do to protect ourselves and our children from those who pride themselves on not wearing a mask?

Dr. Lechtenberg is an Easton resident who graduated from Tufts University and Tufts Medical School in Massachusetts and subsequently trained at The Mount Sinai Hospital and Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan.  He worked as a neurologist at several New York Hospitals, including Kings County and The Long Island College Hospital, while maintaining a private practice, teaching at SUNY Downstate Medical School, and publishing 15 books on a variety of medical topics. He worked in drug development in the USA, as well as in England, Germany, and France.

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