2021 August 2, Monday
Terra Uhing Executive Director of Three Rivers Public Health Department is under immense pressure to gather the best information, share with the public, answer hard questions, and in an environment that’s politicized and demonized the best of us. This discussion is her update on where Blair sits since our last interview.
For those of you who thought my last interview was “soft,” I hope this conversation has more “meat” on the bone. But, understand: I’m only interested in finding truth decently, honorably, and respectfully. Terra could ignore our questions – just like the Blair, Nebraska school board did – but, not only did she answer, she answered the hard ones. She should be applauded for that and it was an honor to speak with her.
(1) BLAIR TODAY: The last time we spoke, you mentioned the need to stay flexible, things could change dramatically and quickly. A month later, things certainly changed. Where are we now compared to where we were?
TERRA UHING OF THREE RIVERS HEALTH: We’ve seen an uptick in the number of cases in regards to COVID, which is exactly what we thought we were going to see. The game-changer is the Delta variant. The Delta variant is a thousand times more transmissible than any of the other variants we’ve seen.
You might recall last Tuesday: the CDC released recommendations and guidance that, depending on where you are in the community (based on the CDC COVID tracker); if you were in a substantial or a high area, that you should mask in crowded places, since the spread is so substantial.
That’s where we’ve gotten to. It’s not that we’re not going to have cases, because we are. It’s not that COVID is going to go away, because it’s not. But, what we’re dealing with now is much, much more transmissible. COVID is spreading, to people that are vaccinated and we also have people that are unvaccinated.
We had an outbreak, and it was tied to an outing. And, when we first started, I had five people tied to this. Three of them were unvaccinated, and those three were in the hospital. I had somebody that was vaccinated that was sick, but was not hospitalized sick. And, then somebody else partially vaccinated who also ended up not needing to be hospitalized.
So, we’re finding that our vaccines do protect against severe disease and illness. It’s just one factor, but it’s a tool we have that we could all use. So, it’s been across the country. You’ve probably been watching too. It’s been a pretty significant decrease here over the last couple of weeks, I know. And, in June, there were some days where we would have—one case, two cases, zero cases… Last week, at one point in seven days, we were up to 38 cases between all three counties. So we are really continuing to try to get people vaccinated as quickly as we can. If they’re so inclined, we’re doing an outreach clinic today; and typically with COVID vaccine, we don’t have a lot of folks there. We’ve already had 19 people there today. So, it’s people getting worried , they’re trying to do what makes the most sense for them and their family.
(2) BLAIR TODAY: A lot of the issues in Blair are about misinformation and lies… I’m not talking about quack doctors. I mean, Anthony Fauci said last year, “You don’t need to wear masks.” Then said, “Well, I was lying about that. You do need to wear a mask.” The World Health Organization, put out a report December of 2020, that says, “The use of a mask, even when correctly used, is insufficient to provide an adequate level of protection for an uninfected individual or prevent onward transmission from an infected individual.” The CDC says they do not recommend the general public wear masks (even for the flu – where virus particles are bigger than COVID). So, regardless of media hype, confusion out here. I’m not asking for a masking debate, either; but, I think on the issue of vaccines, we’re told one day get a vaccine and the next day we find that vaccinated people are getting COVID in significant numbers. And, there’s people out there who are thinking, “why am I getting this vaccine again?“ So you can see the confusion.
TERRA UHING OF THREE RIVERS HEALTH: Absolutely. This misinformation and confusion is probably one of the toughest things that we’re dealing with. It’s far tougher than anything we saw at all last year.
In regards to some of the statements around masking. and, truly this is not “Terra Uhing, organization director,” this is just “Terra Uhing,” this is what I think probably happened: They thought there was likely going to be shortages of masks and they needed to save them for the medical practice. So, trying to keep people calm they said, “No, don’t do this.” “You don’t need to do this.” Then they come back when they changed their guidance; then what was it, a month ago? Well, then, we go through these shortages; we have masks that are disappearing, toilet paper that’s disappearing, all of these things, right? Because people are bulk-buying. So, if I had to guess, or if I had to speculate that’s what I would tell you.
I tell you that as somebody who worked with all of our schools last year, that all of our schools, with the exception of maybe a couple, had implemented masking policies. Masking is not the only thing that works, but it’s a tool that should be used with other strategies. And I saw firsthand last year: it did indeed work. We’re still going to have some cases.
But, Don, we were able to have kids in school last year. Whereas there were certain parts of the country that all they did was online learning; and those kids never got to step foot into a school in many different places across the country. So, we here have seen just the effectiveness of that now…
Was it just the mask? No, it was the masking, it was the social-distancing, it was the cleaning, and it was also the screening of the kids… all of those multi-layered approaches. In fact, it went into allowing us to keep these kids in school. So I’m a proponent. I believe in masks. Up until this last week, I haven’t been wearing a mask because I was fully vaccinated.
Now I wear a mask. Obviously, when I’m here at work, out in the general part of the building; obviously I wear a mask if I go into a medical facility, because those are the rules right now. But, I can tell you I’m wearing a mask now, when I go back into the grocery stores, just because I want to do my part so as not to get innocent people around me sick, if heaven forbid I would be sick. And, I have a nine-year-old at home who’s unvaccinated. I need to do my part to protect my kiddo.
(3) BLAIR TODAY: I disagree with you on masks because of the science I’ve read in dozens of reports. If you read reports from before 2019, the CDC, even on their website today, talks about flu pandemics and says flat-out, there’s no recommendation for people to wear a mask. I appreciate your input, and people want to hear it. But, I think the confusion people have, is based on a nuance you said: Even if you were to wear a mask it’s part of a larger package. It is not going to be the guarantee people think.
TERRA UHING OF THREE RIVERS HEALTH: Okay, it is not the end-all-be-all. It is one of the tools in our toolbox.
(4) BLAIR TODAY: You mentioned the number of new cases here locally. Where can people find this? Because, when I go to the website, I don’t see the daily updates like Three Rivers used to offer.
TERRA UHING OF THREE RIVERS HEALTH: The public health emergency in the state of Nebraska actually ended on June 30. So that gives us what, 30 days to July 30th, to get our site in compliance. So, last Wednesday, we made some changes to our website. You can go out there and you can see the case rates by county. I could tell you out of the three counties, Washington county was doing the best. Dodge and Saunders were having quite a few cases. Now, obviously we’ve had some cases come in that are going to be, impacting our numbers. but, that’s the change there. The public health emergency is done per the state of Nebraska. Hence the same reason why the state’s dashboard is down, but we are keeping ours up.
(5) BLAIR TODAY: Will you bring back the threat meter?
TERRA UHING OF THREE RIVERS HEALTH: I have no plans to bring the “risk dial” back at this time, because like I said, COVID is not going away. We’ve got to figure out how to live with it, and, what that means. When you check the CDC tracking site, Washington county is going to be high. And, this is not Three Rivers reporting. This is the CDC’s COVID tracker. So all three of my counties right now, Dodge, Washington, and Saunders are all considered high.
(6) BLAIR TODAY: You say people should get vaccinated. Can you understand the hesitation? People received vaccines as long as I’ve been alive, yet, I’ve never seen a vaccine with this many people, dying because-of, or associated-with one. I don’t say all the stories are true, and, I know numbers are flexible, but there’s a lot of concern out there. My dad, and, my uncle got blood clots in their lungs. My dad is on oxygen with those blood clots. I’ve got a friend who’s 45 years old who says it was the sickest he ever was – after getting the COVID vaccine. Can you understand the hesitation? I’m not debating whether you think they work or not. Can you understand the hesitation people have?
TERRA UHING OF THREE RIVERS HEALTH: Yeah. And, we’re in a pandemic where this virus is doing things we’ve never seen before. It mutates, and, viruses are going to do that, but we’re dealing with something we don’t know a lot about. And, the only thing we can find out, and, realize is the real life experiences, right?
So, the science is driving us. I can tell you, I got the vaccine. I am not the best patient there is. But, I can tell you, I believe, that they do work. I believe they do protect people from severe illness. And, we are seeing that right now. I just got a call today from with people worried about it in the community… Somebody died, and, it was tied to another event. And, guess what? It was people that were un- vaccinated who are sick with COVID.
That’s the stuff, Don, we don’t make up. That’s the stuff every single day, and, it’s hard because there are people… and, this is why I appreciate our conversations because I like hearing this other side of it because I, myself cannot think of any reason unless my doctor told me not to.
(7) BLAIR TODAY: I’m “between a rock and a hard place,” because on one side, I’ve got people in my family that say I’m too scared of COVID, and, I’m too cautious. On the other side, I have people who say I’m not scared enough. The truth is: I don’t want to get the vaccine, and, I don’t want COVID. And, I don’t know what information I can trust. According to the media, a guy like me is a toothless, redneck, Trump-supporting yokel who doesn’t know his head from a hole in the ground. But, that’s not true. I’m a actually quite the germaphobe. I was washing hands, wiping down groceries, and, social distancing during cold and flu season, before, it was cool. All because I had the flu and it almost killed me. So my position is, I think, what most people believe. We don’t know what information to trust. We’re tired of the media. We’re tired of the people outright lying, and we just don’t know what’s accurate. That’s the thing.
TERRA UHING OF THREE RIVERS HEALTH: Well, I can tell you, there was a time last year when I didn’t ever watch the news at all. There was always some huge disaster… the world was ending… and, there were tough times, Don, very, very tough days where we had case counts, and, people dying, and, people sick that I got to tell you, our healthcare heroes that took care of these folks every single day, nobody can ever even begin to understand that… until they’ve been there, right?
I can tell you, I’m not in the hospital taking care of the folks, but it’s, it’s my staff, that’s talking to these people that are positive or, to the individuals that are exposed or, trying to say, okay, we need you to stay home. We know you’re going to be off work. We’re going to do this, but I’m telling you it’s real. There are some people it does it impact, very badly. And, then there’s some people, unfortunately, it can be life-threatening for them. And they have “long COVID”, “long haul COVID” symptoms forever.
And so, people have got to weigh for themselves, ‘Is the risk of getting COVID, or getting the shot, is that worse than living with the long haul or the potential symptoms after COVID?’Terra Uhing, Executive Director, Three Rivers Public Health Department
That’s the decision people have to make. And, that’s where I like to tell people, “I want you to go talk to your doctor,” like if you don’t believe this, you don’t think this is real, “I want you to call your doctor because they’re your trusted medical expert. I want you to talk to your family who have had COVID. I want you to talk to your friends who have actually lived through this.”
We had a family friend that almost lost their life. My grandma died of COVID. I mean, this is stuff that, and this doesn’t include all the other 9,000 other people’s names, that I see every single day. But, that’s the hard thing, we’re trying to be transparent. We’re trying to give information to the best of our ability.
The best example I can give of this is last week… I shared a statistic from, hold on here… Let me read this to you so I can actually give it to you verbatim for what it is… Okay, so this was probably from Thursday from Bryan Health in Lincoln, “How important is it to get the COVID-19 vaccine? The truth is in the numbers. Of our COVID- 19 hospitalized patients in Bryan, 100% under the age of 50 are unvaccinated. Over the age of 50, 75% are unvaccinated, and 25% had one or both doses, or are elderly with underlying conditions or immunocompromised.” We can’t say it enough, please get vaccinated. It protects you. And those you love.
(8) BLAIR TODAY: Okay. So, just because I’m a contrarian, I could give you all sorts of reasons why those statistics may or may not be relevant, but, I do get the gist of what you mean. I appreciate your information. You’re one of the few people in the media, who is actually transparent about this. This is what we need. We need more information from all sides. I think I represent a group of people who don’t know who to trust. I want people to know I had conversations with you both in front of the microphone and then privately. I know you are sincere. I know you believe this. I know it’s on your heart. I know you want to help people. And, that means more to me than simple statistics. If I can look in your eyes and I know you’re being honest with me, I can hold your hand and I can walk in there and I can do what I need to do for my family. But, you have to admit that’s not the way most people have been treated thus far. It’s “shut up, sit down and do what we say,” And that’s hard for people to do and they get have hard time getting past that…
TERRA UHING OF THREE RIVERS HEALTH: Well, and that’s why, when we’re sitting here and we’re figuring out what it looks like for back to school… we went through mask-mandates last year, we went through the directed health measures last year. Yes, it’s CDC recommendations this year for anybody who’s not vaccinated and vaccinated in high areas of, of substantial transmission, right: To wear your mask. I can’t make people wear their mask, Don. I can tell them I highly recommend it. Yes, there’s some data out there right now that’s showing maybe young people aren’t impacted by it enough, but why do we want to take that chance?
(9) BLAIR TODAY: Terra, I know young people are not impacted by COVID as much – they may think. But, here’s what they need to understand. If you get Hep C or Hep B, if you get HIV, if you get herpes, they can lay dormant in your system. Then, somewhere down the road, you pay a price for getting exposed when you were young. The same is true with HPV – you can get infected and it remains dormant, and, sometime in the future, it unpacks itself. And, you’re not going to be happy with the results. So, when young people say, “Well, it’s not affecting me,” I don’t care what you think you knw; you can’t know what the impact will be later in life with that thing in your system…. And, science doesn’t know yet either. So, I warn young people: Don’t be so cavalier because 20 years down the road, we’re going to hear about people who have effects of COVID that were “unexpected”…
TERRA UHING OF THREE RIVERS HEALTH: Really, no, you’re you’re right. And that’s why we’re trying to tell people, we can’t make you, right? But, we recommend it. We’re trying to give those choices back to parents. We’re trying, but Don, the truth of the matter is I can’t win this. I have the one side who doesn’t believe in it, who says that masks, don’t do a thing, the vaccine isn’t even a vaccine. And, then now I have the other side say you’re trying to kill our kids, or don’t care about our kids. You’re right. I mean, all I can say is my nine-year-old is not overly-excited about having to wear a mask to school. And, she’s going to have to wear a mask. That’s the choice we’re going to make.
(10) BLAIR TODAY: The state we are in is in between, “this is all a hoax, masks do nothing, and vaccines don’t work,” and, “you have to do this, or you’re killing grandma.” Somewhere in the middle is truth. And, I think you try to represent the middle. Is there any way you would sum up for people where we are in Blair, and, Washington County today? If you could say one thing to close this interview what would you say?
TERRA UHING OF THREE RIVERS HEALTH: The Delta variant is definitely here. We need people to make the best decisions they can for them and their family, because it’s not going away. We want this pandemic to get under control. We want this pandemic to allow us to get back to some sort of level of normalcy. And, everybody has the power to do that. They can wear a mask when they’re in crowded places, and they can also send their kids to school in a mask if they’re so inclined. But, more importantly, we do have a tool of a vaccine that is one more way to help us get through this. So that’s, that’s where we are. I’m afraid of what this fall is going to look like, so we’re trying to do as many things as we can to have vaccine available, to give the data, to be as transparent as we can. So people understand that it is very much here and we all play a part.
(11) BLAIR TODAY: I really appreciate that. I say again on the record, when people read this interview, they’ll see, I made it very clear I don’t think masks do anything. And, I made it clear I’ve got some questions about the vaccine. I made it clear that I don’t want COVID or a vaccine. I’m one of those people between two hard choices. And, I think people need to hear two grown adults talk about this without being rude or hateful. I implore anyone who reads this to listen to what you’ve said, listen to what I’ve said, do the research… Don’t sit around and let the media scare you. But on the other hand, don’t let your crazy brother-in-law stop you from making a good choice for your family.
TERRA UHING OF THREE RIVERS HEALTH: Nope. And, I probably sound like a broken record, but, I, myself, personally can not think of one good reason why anybody in my family would not get a vaccine. But, that’s where I just urge those who aren’t comfortable to talk to their doctors, to talk to their loved ones, and, to make the decision. I don’t want to say you have to go get your shot because that’s not going to get us anywhere nor do I think that’s right. However, I would urge you to truly consider that and make the decision that’s right for you and your family.