On Nov. 30, at the Colorado legislature’s special session legislative session regarding COVID-19 relief, state Rep. Larry Liston, R-Colorado Springs, was photographed wearing a mask over his head for over 10 minutes and greeting his colleagues with no facial covering on.
When prompted for an explanation for this behavior, he told the Denver Post he was “goofing around,” maintained he did “nothing wrong,” and claimed some people are “way too sensitive about everything.”
We write as Colorado medical students who agree with Mike Littwin’s Colorado Sun opinion column regarding the lack of respect for the pandemic by some Colorado representatives at the special session.
Speaking as future physicians who will soon be on the front lines and who have seen the stress COVID-19 has put on our communities, we are disappointed to see an elected official “goofing around” about a disease that has left his constituents without jobs, homes and loved ones.
We are especially disappointed because Rep. Liston represents a district in El Paso County that, as of a Dec. 16 update, has endured 35,784 COVID-19 cases and 443 COVID-19 deaths (the second-highest and fourth-highest numbers for a county in the state, respectively, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment).
Rep. Liston “goofing around” about proper personal protective equipment usage disregards the suffering of the families in El Paso County who were missing a loved one at their Thanksgiving tables a few days earlier, and the health care workers who held the hands of our Colorado citizens and listened to their last breaths while family members could only call in.
Rep. Liston was one of the many members of our state House who were not wearing masks during the legislative special session. Yet a statewide mask mandate was enacted on July 16 by Gov. Jared Polis to slow the spread of COVID-19 and protect vulnerable populations and health care workers. Counties and individual municipalities are not allowed to exempt themselves from this rule.
Despite this mandate, some state lawmakers chose to not wear masks while seated and while interacting with colleagues on the chamber floors. According to CPR, there were also reports of lawmakers refusing to take coronavirus rapid antigen screening tests, and of another lawmaker who refused to wear a mask anywhere in the state Capitol because, saying that, among other reasons, he did not like to be “micromanaged” from the “left” about his behavior.
We are students who study medicine full-time and we can confidently say that masks reduce community spread by limiting respiratory droplets from entering common air space, when used properly.
Proper use reduces deaths and COVID-19-associated morbidities as we await vaccine distribution. Masks alone will not eliminate the COVID-19 pandemic, but they are a crucial part of the larger non-pharmaceutical intervention strategies recommended by doctors and scientists to slow the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus.
This is especially important because, according to Johns Hopkins University, viral shedding studies show that an infected individual is most contagious days prior to symptom onset. This means that someone can unknowingly spread SARS-CoV-2 one day, then on the very next day realize that they are developing symptoms of COVID-19.
We believe our elected officials set an example for their people. As future health care providers and Colorado citizens, we expect them to act in the best interest of their constituents and display behavior that promotes health and human safety.
COVID-19 is a threat to Colorado public health and human safety. We understand that masks can be uncomfortable, but preventing the discomfort of fellow Coloradans from fighting for their lives while struggling to breathe through a tube inserted into their windpipe is a valuable trade-off.
We also know that masks are effective at reducing community spread, and people will be more likely to wear masks if they see their elected officials modeling COVID-19 safety guidelines.
Masks and SARS-CoV-2 are not partisan entities and affect the health of Coloradans on the left, right and everywhere in-between. We call on our elected officials to model COVID-19 safety guidelines, including properly wearing masks, and to prioritize Colorado public health over political differences when they convene again for the regular session in January.
Joshua Romero and Kseniya Anishchenko are second-year medical students at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. Their views in this essay are their own and they are not writing on behalf of their school.
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