County Commission wants specific criteria from the medical community before removing mask obligation

FORT PIERCE – At the request of St. Lucie County Commission Chairwoman Cathy Townsend, the Board debated rescinding its controversial facemask ordinance Oct. 6 but ultimately kicked the can down the road in hopes of finding a tangible medical basis for justifying that decision.

Just a week later, the Martin County Commission rescinded its mandatory facemask ordinance after a couple of contentious meetings with residents in opposition. Only one member of the public, Port St. Lucie resident Glen Collins, urged St. Lucie commissioners to rescind the ordinance that evening. Mr. Collins had previously addressed the Martin County Commission as well during its discussions on the topic last August and berated some of its members for wearing their masks improperly or inconsistently while he himself refused to wear one.

“The crisis is the reaction of our governments, of the media, the hysteria,” he said. “Anybody that takes their mask off in here to speak is going against their own logic because we’re in air conditioning, everything’s circling around. It should have been the direction of this Board to calm peoples’ nerves and tell them this isn’t so bad, but instead you wanted to take away their rights. Thank God we have a law enforcement here that didn’t enforce this stuff.”

When renowned Fort Pierce Infectious Disease Specialist Dr. Moti Ramgopal later came to the same podium to provide his professional opinion to commissioners, he promptly removed his mask while acknowledging the validity of the opinion expressed by the lone public speaker.

“I shall remove my mask inside – there’s no one at least six feet around from me,” he said. “First, I would like to thank you in July when we had the mask mandate. Second, I would like to thank this gentleman who earlier discussed his concern about why we should not have masks moving forward. I do respect his opinion, because if I was in his situation, I would probably think the same way.”

Dr. Ramgopal then briefly detailed his three decades in Fort Pierce focused on the treatment of infectious diseases and acknowledged the COVID-19 roller coaster ride the public has experienced since early spring when the pandemic exploded across the United States.

“I recognize that infectious disease is not an easy story – it’s a difficult story – and viruses are difficult to understand sometimes,” he said. “They behave in unpredictable ways. I look back from the time the epidemic hit us and I remember walking through the hospital with my mask on very early and people were laughing at me and saying why are you wearing a mask, and I said because this is airborne spread. This is not contact spread… this is not droplet spread as much as we would like it to be – this is airborne spread.”

The infectious disease specialist admitted that the Centers for Disease Control had waited until the day before the meeting to finally declare the coronavirus is spread via airborne particles.

“It took seven months for our leading authorities to describe something that we suspected quite a while ago,” he mused. “And what do we do with airborne spread? The initial thing of any infection, [is to] prevent spread, prevent transmission, prevent as much as we can until we have treatment strategies where we can stop the spread. The first thing we have. and the cheapest thing, is a mask.”

Dr. Ramgopal directly attributed the reduction rate in St. Lucie County COVID-19 hospitalizations to the commission’s implementation of its mandatory mask ordinance last July.

“When you look at the data from July to August and September, we were completely overwhelmed – first responders, myself, my infectious disease team – we had 100 to 150 patients in the hospital,” he explained. “Then, thankfully, we decided to do the masks mandatory. Now what is happening during the last four to six weeks? This has dropped significantly. Right now, in the hospital, I probably have about 20 patients compared to over a hundred six weeks ago.”

The renowned physician did express concerns about entering the cold and flu season this winter and knowing that patients have already been simultaneously diagnosed with influenza and the coronavirus.

“Masks are probably the cheapest way to treat COVID right now, and the director of the CDC said it’s almost as good as a vaccine,” he said. “I do think the county itself – the population – has done an amazing and remarkable job in helping us healthcare workers by wearing masks and reducing the numbers. I think if we continue to do this through Thanksgiving, through the Christmas holidays, we’ll be looking really, really well into January where we’ll probably have vaccines and better treatment options.”

After Dr. Ramgopal’s presentation, Commissioner Chris Dzadovsky lauded him for his years of dedication to the St. Lucie County medical field.

“I’m grateful that you’re in our community, and I thank you for your words,” he said. “As you said, the least expensive option of treating this COVID is simply handwashing, distancing and face coverings. If I’m in a war and I have one weapon, I want to use it. So, this is a weapon that we’re using against the war of COVID-19.”

Commissioner Frannie Hutchinson then asked Dr. Ramgopal the hard question that so many citizens across the Treasure Coast have asked their own representatives as to when they can finally let their both their guard and their masks down concerning the coronavirus.

“It’s a question I hit Mr. Tipton with every week,” she said. “What is the magic number? That seems to be what we keep getting, and I’m not in a position where I can answer that. Is there a magic number, a percentage, that the medical community and all of those that have the expertise are looking at reaching?”

While Dr. Ramgopal emphasized the 5 percent positivity rate, he admitted he’d personally like to see it drop even lower before people stop wearing masks since reinfections have recently come to the forefront.

“The 2 to 5 percent is probably great for the community, and I think it’s probably a number we should look at,” he replied. “I want to see the numbers in the hospital rate drop a little bit more. We’re still seeing one to two patients coming in every single day and I would like to see that to almost nothing. We’re at the second phase, and I’m seeing reinfections now. What do I mean by that? I’m seeing people who were positive three months ago and now re-infected again.”

Chairwoman Townsend subsequently urged her fellow Board members to put the choice back in the hands of the citizens, particularly since the governor’s recent executive order authorizing the Phase 3 reopening prohibits fines for face mask and social distancing violations.

“Personally, I agree with the physicians,” she said. “But at the same time, if you really look at the overall numbers – with the 320,000 residents we have here and half of the deaths in the nursing homes and long-term care facilities – I think we’ve done a good job. I just feel that it’s time for us to let the families and let the individuals make their own decisions.”

That idea got not traction however, and Commissioner Dzadovsky then made a motion to continue the discussion until November so staff could meet with local medical professionals and bring back a threshold number the Board could ultimately utilize to make such a decision. Commission Linda Bartz seconded the motion, which then passed unanimously.

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