Chairman of Story County Board of Health differentiates between COVID-19 facts and conspiracies

Story County Board of Health Chairman John Paschen has practice pediatrics in Ames since 1990. He graduated from the Univerity of Iowa of Medicine in 1986 and completed his Residency and Neonatal Fellowship at St. Paul Children’s Hopsital.

Katherine Kealey

Throughout the pandemic, an array of conspiracy theories about COVID-19 have surfaced to the forefront of the media and have even been echoed by politicians. Story County Board of Health Chairman John Paschen presents the facts relating to COVID-19.

Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, whose seat is up for reelection in November, recently said she is “so skeptical” of government statistics on infections and deaths for COVID-19, suggesting that they have been inflated.

“These health care providers and others are reimbursed at a higher rate if COVID is tied to it, so what do you think they’re doing?” Ernst said.

Iowa currently has over 69,200 positive cases of COVID-19 and a total of 1,160 deaths, while the U.S. count is past 187,000 deaths.

Ernst later said she was repeating what she had heard.

“I heard the same thing on the news,” Ernst said. “[…] They’re thinking there may be 10,000 or less deaths that were actually singularly COVID-19. […] I’m just really curious. It would be interesting to know that.”

Paschen said these statements are “enraging and insulting” and hopes it has no impact on the public.

“My hope is [the public] views the statement as completely ridiculous and untrue, which is what it is,” Paschen said.

Physicians are paid more when more care is required to treat a patient. COVID-19 patients tend to be more ill and require more care, but physicians’ pay is not based on the diagnosis of a patient, according to Paschen.

“This is an insult to all the men and women taking care of COVID-19 patients who put their life on the line every time they walk in to see them,” Paschen said. “Her statement that ‘she heard it,’ well, gosh darn, I hear a lot of things, too, [but I] don’t repeat them in public because they don’t make sense.”

Throughout the pandemic, public health officials have had to combat conspiracy theories related to COVID-19. Paschen said COVID-19 has nothing to do with politics; it is a matter of facts.

“I wish it wasn’t a political thing because it has nothing to do with politics,” Paschen said. “Republicans get this as much as Democrats. I can’t fathom the reasoning behind it, to be quite honest, and it really shouldn’t be a political issue; it is a health issue. There are always conspiracy theories out there.”

President Donald Trump has echoed conspiracy theories in the past as well, such as suggesting hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for COVID-19. Paschen said that this is not a proven method for treatment as of now.

“As we are learning with this virus, things change,” Paschen said. “Just about anything you say may be different by tomorrow.”

One thing that has remained consistent is the use of face coverings to slow the spread of COVID-19 as well as social distancing and washing hands.

“[Wearing masks] is one of the single most important things that we can do, but it has always been there as a way to help prevent it,” Paschen said.

Ames City Council recently passed a mask mandate for the City of Ames, but due to the lack of municipal authority, the ordinance has no enforcement mechanism. The ordinance went into effect Sept. 4.

“I was not terribly thrilled about their mask mandate because it had no enforcement capability; however, I have to admit I think it will do some good,” Paschen said.

The ordinance requires anyone 3 years or older to wear a mask in public settings where social distancing is unavailable. The mandate also accommodates for anyone with disabilities that prevent them from wearing masks. Ames is not the first city to pass a mandate; Iowa City and Dubuque passed an ordinance with enforcement earlier in the summer.

While attempting to pass the ordinance, the Ames City Council received a large amount of feedback from the community through emails and public forums from both those in support and those who opposed it.

“I definitely think when the Council was making this decision that not everyone is going to be happy, regardless of what the outcome was,” said Rachel Junck, Rep. 4th Ward. “Still, really being able to go about this in a civil way and making sure that people in our community are comfortable going out to business to shop. Having masks in public places makes things safer for everyone, and so I think that was the conclusion that people ended up coming to with the mask mandate and hoping to be as least divisive as possible.”

Junck voted in favor of the mask mandates with and without enforcement. She said she is already seeing some locals enforcing the mandate by encouraging shoppers to wear masks through signage.

“I don’t think masks should be political at all,” Junck said. “I think it is scientific to prove it reduces the transmission of COVID, and anything I can do to help keep my community safe, I will mask up and wear mine.”

As a public health official, Paschen uses the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention‘s (CDC) website and the Iowa Department of Public Health website for day-to-day information relating to COVID-19.

“The major reason I use the Iowa Department of Public Health is because it gives me a trend,” Paschen said. “I know they have gotten a lot of pushback lately about how they are not recording this appropriately, but they can give us trends and give me a good idea of what is happening in the state and not just in my county. The CDC website is an excellent source for up to date materials, and, you know, you can argue with certain protocols, but until someone comes up with better ones, you really need to be following them.”