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Health Care News Viewpoints

Publisher’s View: Delaware shouldn’t pick and choose its epidemics

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Rob Martinelli
President and Publisher
Today Media Inc.

By Robert Martinelli 

Is gun violence an epidemic, as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggested to Delaware officials back in 2015, a disease that can be treated through science?

After studying gun violence in Wilmington, the CDC recommended integration of statewide social service, criminal justice, school, and other databases to better identify who could be next – and target them with comprehensive services to prevent another injury or death. 

Back then, public health experts saw the CDC recommendations as an example of what could be achieved if gun violence were viewed and treated as a disease. But we’ve dropped the ball on figuring out how to apply science on this issue and state officials have waffled in their explanations of how the state is “following the science” in making decisions about critical public-health issues and business decisions like restaurant closings and reopening schools.

The News Journal reported this past December that Delaware officials had ethical concerns with the database recommendation and with other shortcomings in the report. So, they pursued different deterrence strategies that appear to have been ineffective given the record number of shootings since then. 

Describing gun violence as an epidemic is great for headlines but at this point it’s not necessarily accurate from a scientific perspective using a disease model, like the one used for COVID-19, that looks at the interactions between a pathogen (external agent), host (the person carrying the gun), and environmental conditions.

For the first time in nearly 25 years, the CDC is funding two- and three-year-long gun-violence research projects. Dr. Bindi Naik-Mathuria, trauma director at Texas Children’s Hospital, told the Houston Chronicle, “If we understand why it’s happening, where, and who it’s happening to, we can understand ways to treat or fix it like it’s a disease. All the statistics for firearm violence are related to deaths, but there are three times more people that are shot who don’t die.”

The Biden Administration is also exploring ways to curb gun violence, including a $5 billion investment over eight years to support evidence-based community violence interventions that include efforts to connect individuals with job training and jobs.

Dr. Dorothy Dillard, director of the Center for Neighborhood Revitalization and Research at Delaware State University, is leading an effort to understand this issue using social science. In late 2020, DSU received a $166,290 grant over two years in collaboration with the Thurgood Marshall College Fund and funded by the National Collaborative on Gun Violence Research to “go to the source to understand the drivers of gun violence, with a focus on why young men possess guns. We’re trying to understand the environmental conditions that bring host and pathogen together. Once we know that, then we can extend the disease model to this problem.”

Dillard and her team have done a deep dive into the statistics and they are now training the team that will go into the community to do field work this summer. Dillard’s research – and the research of peers in Baltimore, Houston, and Jackson, Miss. – will center on the drivers of how young people are ending up with guns, including why and how they come to possess a gun.

Wilmington City Council President Hanifa Shabazz, who asked the CDC to conduct this report when she was a city council member, said she feels state officials haven’t treated the violence with the same urgency as other epidemics such as the opioid crisis.

She rightfully acknowledged in the News Journal article that “she can’t help feeling Delaware missed an opportunity to fully implement the CDC’s recommendations.” The state could have helped identify ways that it could have been studied in a more scientific way. It can still be a leader in this debate and should revisit it.

If you think about the state’s actions toward restaurants, it had a workable disease model that it may not have followed. Science tells us how to stop or slow COVID. We generally agree with the benefits of masks and social distancing. Whether the state then ignored the science and went further than it needed and for longer – to the detriment of business owners – is a different question, but one where I clearly believe that it has.

Finding the right metrics, explaining them, and then sticking to them is critical. Restaurant owners are right to question whether restrictions are too onerous, whether they could be removed earlier, and why other customer-facing businesses are enjoying greater freedoms. It’s not fair to paint restaurants complying with masking and social distancing rules as drivers of the virus’s transmission.

The state has spent too many years playing fast and loose with science, picking and choosing which recommendations it wants to implement, whether the metrics align with the public need, and which ones don’t “measure up” to its policies. In the long run, its approach on these topics is having a devastating effect on our economy, schools, and safety.

Robert Martinelli is the president of Today Media, the parent company of Delaware Business Times.


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