Pediatrician Dr. Chris Keefer – “We are fighting a public health battle”

I’m Dr. Christopher Keefer, a pediatrician and associate professor at Meharry Medical College. My wife is also a physician, and we’re the parents of 13-year-old twins.

Dr. Christopher Keefer
Associate Professor
Meharry Medical College

On July 10th, I tested positive for COVID-19 and I self-isolated at home for a period of two weeks. Fortunately, my symptoms were very mild and my recovery was uneventful. To protect my family, I isolated in a separate part of our house. This was one of the most difficult – but necessary – parts of my experience.

Since May, we’ve seen a rapid growth in the number of positive cases not just across Tennessee, but also here at Meharry. My colleagues and I are careful to wear masks and protective equipment, but community spread is having a real impact on our patient population, and consequently on front-line health professionals like me.

We’re fighting a public health battle, and changing human behavior to improve public health and safety sometimes takes years, as seen through things such as the campaigns to wear seat belts and put children in child safety restraints. We don’t have years to make behavioral changes around COVID-19! Today we have an opportunity to mitigate its spread with just two simple changes: wearing masks and social distancing. COVID-19 isn’t like the common cold; it’s much more infectious, deadly, and often travels asymptomatically in people who show no symptoms for weeks.

Because of the serious medical consequences of the rapid spread of coronavirus across Tennessee, I am observing some unintended consequences in our patient population. The outpatient volume in our pediatric clinic has actually been lower in the past 2-4 weeks. Parents have been reluctant to bring their children in for well-care checkups and vaccines. They are worried about leaving the safety of their homes. If this pattern continues, vaccination rates could drop to levels at which we worry about outbreaks of preventable, and sometimes deadly, childhood infectious diseases like measles and whooping cough.

There is also fear about reopening schools. As a pediatrician and a parent, I am of course concerned about the medical consequences of a COVID outbreak if we return to in-person classrooms. But I also worry about the long-term social, emotional, and academic consequences of not returning. As a parent, I am willing to take the risk of sending them back IF proper protocols are in place – protocols such as mask wearing and social distancing.

The bottom line is that families and parents need to have confidence and trust in their schools and governmental leadership. That trust and confidence is built through clear, consistent policy and guidelines that are frequently, and transparently, communicated.

We need leadership from the governor’s office. One of the most effective things he could implement right now is a statewide mask mandate.

Masks and social distancing are key to reducing the spread of coronavirus. This simple public health policy, mandated by the governor, will contribute to more mask wearing. While it likely won’t result in 100% compliance, it will undoubtedly help. Here’s the bottom line: the more precautions that Tennesseans take, the sooner our children will be able to safely return to their classrooms!

This virus is real and it’s serious, something I know firsthand. While my recovery went well, this isn’t true for everyone. Please don’t wait until someone in your family, someone you care for, succumbs to this virus to take it seriously. Wear your masks and protect each other.