Ken Briggs

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Did you put on your seat belt the last time you got in a car? I did and I wonder why. I have never been in a serious accident where the seatbelt would have saved my life. I’m not worried about getting a ticket from a law enforcement officer doing their job. Yet I continue to buckle up, every time I get in a car. The answer is simple. I believe that wearing seatbelts saves lives and it has become a strongly held value of mine.

I have been a health professor for over 41 years. I remember some time ago when the seatbelt thing was a big deal and people were coming to terms with the research and the mandate to wear a seatbelt or be fined. Things were simpler then (1986 when the law was implemented but not enforced until 2002). People had to trust the research scientists and the national and state organizations that promoted health and safety. Some trusted the science and buckled up. Some did not.

Teaching a lesson on values, I had several students stand on a continuum line I taped on the floor of my classroom at Central. At one end was “I hate seatbelts so much that when I get in a car, I take out a knife and cut them out and toss them out the window. The other end of the continuum was “I believe so strongly in seatbelts that I leave them on when I go to a drive-in movie (they had them back then and they were so much fun).

Well, several students took a stand and most were somewhere in the middle but one young woman took a stand that she leaves her seatbelt on when at a drive-in movie. The class sadly laughed at her. She quickly shut everyone up when asked if she was serious about leaving it on. She replied, “You’re damn right I do. My brother was killed last year in a crash and had he had his seatbelt on he would still be alive just like all the people in the car who had their seat belts on”. She continued as we all wiped the tears form our eyes, “So if I go to a drive-in I leave it on because I don’t want to forget about it when I drive home.” The class remained silent and several students moved toward her on the continuum.

Fast forward to today. Two new issues. Two new continua: Mask Mandate and Vaccinate Mandate. People on opposite extremes. People somewhere in the middle. People standing based on their experience, information, and their values related to health, civil liberty, and social regard. Much like 1986 and that seatbelt issue. Only now things are very different. Information has been democratized by the internet. We no longer need to walk into a library to get information. At a click of a mouse or a shout to Alexa or Siri we become informed. The only problem is that anyone can put information out there and we may not know the source and where the information is coming from. It becomes emotional and often based on sensational testimonials and not science which requires rigor, objectivity, and exactitude. It becomes an issue of trust or distrust and it is killing us.

The science says to get vaccinated and wear a mask in public, especially now with the new surge caused by this Delta variant. Many are choosing to believe that their civil liberty right is more important than the recommendations of science. Meanwhile, during the last two weeks hospitals all over the country are once again becoming overwhelmed with COVID patients, many who are children. This has caused me to rethink my own behavior since I have not been wearing a mask around lots of people because I am double vaccinated. I need to do better.

OK, you know my bias. I’m a health educator and it has stayed in me. I likely won’t change anyone’s mind about getting vaccinated or to wear a mask. Changing health behavior is just so complex.

So, let me end by going back to the student in my class that took a stand that she would wear a seat belt in a drive-in movie. Perhaps the student standing on these two issues of masking and getting vaccinated would be from one of the family members of the 621,000 deceased due to COVID who absolutely wished their loved one would have worn a mask or got vaccinated. Or perhaps it would be from one of the thousands of people in the U.S. who wished the same thing because of lingering side effects. Maybe the voice would be from one of the thousands of health care workers treating COVID cases who have not had a day off in nearly two years desperately wishing people would get vaccinated.

The lesson here is that our experiences shape our values. And our values determine our health behavior. As this incredibly sneaky and determined Delta variant surges consider the scientists who research this stuff everyday of their lives, who say we can beat this thing if people would simply get vaccinated. They believe we can get back to normal. If not, we may be dealing with wearing a mask as normal for a very long time, just like buckling your seatbelt.

Ken Briggs is a Professor Emeritus at Central Washington University and a frequent speaker throughout the state on a variety of wellness issues.

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