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Defining leadership before politics
Jeffrey Lewis

In 1956, John F. Kennedy, then the junior senator from Massachusetts, published “Profiles in Courage,” a collection of stories about eight U.S. senators who displayed acts of political bravery throughout history. The book would win the Pulitzer Prize and become one of the most essential works in the political science canon. I have a copy on my office bookshelf.

Perhaps “Profiles in Courage” should be required reading for all elected officials because these days, political bravery is far too seldom displayed. However, there is a notable exception: Modesto Mayor Sue Zwahlen. The retired emergency room nurse has risked drawing the ire of a block of voters by publicly urging her constituents to get vaccinated against the novel Coronavirus. In a video posted on the City of Modesto’s Facebook page on July 28, the first-term mayor warned that cases are on the rise once again thanks mainly to the Delta variant and urged all those eligible to get vaccinated.

And she’s correct.

“Full vaccination drastically reduces your chance of getting the virus, severe illness, and death,” Zwahlen said in her video. “Some of you may have doubts about or are anxious about getting the vaccine. After serving our community for over 40 years as an emergency room nurse, I understand your concerns. Modestans care about each other, and I care about you and your family, so please, let’s all do our part and get vaccinated today.”

The mayor is spot on with her request. Still, this could prove costly to the mayor if she chooses to seek re-election.

The Centers for Disease Control, the California Department of Public Health, and the Stanislaus County Department of Public Health – federal, state, and local agencies – have advised getting vaccines and suggesting returning to wearing a mask in indoor public venues. Why? Because the seven-day average for new cases in the U.S. last week was 71,651 – a 151 percent 14-day increase. The Delta variant, now the dominant strain in the U.S., largely is responsible for the increase. And it’s not just here in Stanislaus County. According to the CDC, more than two-thirds of the nation’s counties – 69.3 percent – had high or substantial level of COVID-19 transmission as of July 27.

In other words, we’re headed the wrong way. Again.

Zwahlen recognizes this and is taking steps to help mitigate a reversal. Meanwhile, the Modesto City School Board chose to go the other way, voting to send a letter to the state requesting local control of COVID-related protocols. The county’s Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 to support that request. So, we should ask the county supervisors this question: “Why do you walk blindly down a dead-end road when the public health of county residents is in jeopardy?” 

We are battling for the soul of the future public health of our communities.  At times like this, we need to applaud leaders like Mayor Zwahlen and ask ourselves whether the other elected officials afraid to help protect our children when the CDC has said this Delta variant is as contagious as the chickenpox?  We cannot fail to prepare for when our children return to school in a few weeks – in some cases, just a few days. We need to take proactive measures and make sure that all those who are eligible get vaccinated. And when in public spaces indoors, the vaccinated and unvaccinated alike should wear masks.

This is not about courage. It is about common sense and an unwavering dedication to children.

— Jeffrey R. Lewis is President and CEO of Legacy Health Endowment in Turlock, Calif. The opinions expressed are his own.