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As fourth wave begins, the debate between public health and personal freedom hasn't changed

“I believe people are making individual decisions. We want our individual autonomy back."

NEW ORLEANS — With Wednesday’s sobering news about the sharp rise in COVID cases and hospitalizations in Louisiana, we’re hearing more pleas for people to wear masks and get vaccines. 

But with the state dramatically lagging behind the rest of the country in vaccinations, are those messages really getting through? 

The tone from multiple news conferences on Wednesday was serious, but familiar.

“For those of you who are considering getting a vaccine, I’m telling you, now is the time. This probably the most emergent time of the entire pandemic,” said Dr. Charles Preston, the coroner of St. Tammany Parish.

Months ago, some state health officials predicted we’d go through a fourth surge of COVID cases and they urged anyone who could get vaccinated to do so. Yet, here we are, with free vaccines at our disposal and, still, the debate between public health and personal freedom rages on.

“I believe people are making individual decisions. We want our individual autonomy back. So, for those of us who have been vaccinated or those who have not, we still have the choice to wear the mask regardless of where we are,” said Ashley Griffin, a tourist visiting New Orleans from Houston.

Dr. Michelle Moore is a clinical psychiatrist with LSU Health Sciences. She says the reluctance some may feel toward vaccines and mask mandates is often a rejection of orders, even if the orders are said to be for their benefit.

“I think in this moment, they’re not thinking about their benefit, they’re thinking of the fact that you’re telling them what to do, and they don’t want to be told what to do and how to do it. So, they have a psychological reactance,” Dr. Moore said

“It seems like the government is in control and we have no say in it. I mean to that point, what can one man do?” said Jim, a tourist visiting New Orleans from Arizona.

The messaging about vaccines and masking can get muddy when the messenger admits a mistake, as the former Surgeon General did this week. On Twitter, Dr. Jerome Adams said he and Dr. Fauci were premature and wrong in advising against face masks last year. 

With a majority of the population looking to “get back normal”, the reintroduction of masking may be a tall order especially if there is a perceived reversal of previous positions.

“If you don’t know the right answer, you don’t know when to act and how to act, then why should I listen to the advice that you give? I think it makes people question that source,” Dr. Michelle Moore said.

While some people are skeptical, and even resistant to all the advisories, messages and mandates throughout the pandemic, there are signs that people can change their minds. Conservative commentator Sean Hannity, who has loudly questioned the government’s handling of the pandemic, recently struck a different tone.

“Please take COVID seriously, I can’t say it enough. Enough people have died. We don’t need any more deaths,” said Hannity on FOX News.

We heard similar pleas when covid was killing thousands of Americans every day. With that number now in the hundreds, we’re hearing them again. For how long, may depend on who chooses to listen.

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