Friday, July 17, 2020

Q&A with the RMDs: Dr. Martha Whyte

To respond to the daily public health needs of Louisianans, the Louisiana Department of Health has divided the state into nine regions. Each of these regions is led by a regional medical director (RMD) or administrator who oversees the parish health units in their region. Regional medical directors are in constant contact with state health leadership and local leaders to help guide Louisianans through the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly among key demographics.

In this Q&A blog series, these public health leaders will be answering the same questions, and together they will paint a statewide perspective of the COVID-19 pandemic and their communities’ response. Today, you’ll hear from Region 7’s Dr. Martha Whyte, Regional Medical Director for the parishes of Bienville, Bossier, Caddo, Claiborne, DeSoto, Natchitoches, Red River, Sabine and Webster.

The questions people are asking have to do with: “When will this be over?” They ask about the increase in the number of new cases and why we are seeing these increases. They really thought we were past this — that COVID had ended.

Then, when they hear the news about cases going up, they ask why aren’t people doing more, why aren’t they wearing a mask and why are they crowding into restaurants, stores and bars? They also want to know why so many places allow so many people in at one time. They know to avoid crowds but are looking for someone to enforce the restrictions on the number of people allowed in one place at one time.

And now with the increase in cases, people are asking where to go to get tested. All of a sudden, almost everyone wants a test.

People understand that they are supposed to be wearing a mask, but the act of wearing a mask has become very political. Many people are trying to make a statement by wearing or not wearing a mask.

The requirement to wear a mask when in public is based on recommendations from doctors and experts both in our state and around the world. It is not about politics. Experts have said over and over that wearing a mask and staying 6 feet away from others when in public are actions we can all take to stay safe and help end this pandemic.

It is crazy that some people view something as simple as wearing a mask — while there is an ongoing health risk — as a political statement. I hope that we can get to the point where we all understand that wearing a mask is a small inconvenience that we all can do. It is a selfless act that benefits our loved ones, coworkers and communities. 

I understand that people are tired and ready to get out again and interact with friends and family. However, we need to be smart, and too many people see some businesses reopening as an indication that we are free of the virus.

We need to remember that just because we succeeded in flattening the curve early on does not mean the virus went away. It is still here, it is highly contagious and it is especially dangerous for older people and people of all ages with conditions like diabetes, obesity and hypertension.

It concerns me when I see or hear of people going to crowded places and standing shoulder to shoulder. Close contact is especially dangerous. Not wearing a mask in public is dangerous. Because some of our residents did not follow these precautions, we are seeing a dramatic increase in new cases throughout the state. This is not at all surprising given what we know about how easily this virus spreads.

In our region, it remains a challenge to get people to really understand the current situation — that the virus is still around and it is still dangerous. How do we get people to act on this information and do the right thing when they are so anxious to get out of the house and resume their normal activities?

I find that older people tend to heed public health advice more so than younger people. Those who know they have health issues are cautious about when they go out and where they go. Younger people, perhaps seeing themselves as invincible, or hearing that their peers are not getting too sick, are willing to take a bigger risk.

Of course, this is not unique to COVID. It is part of the mindset of young people when it comes to many things — because they do not think they will get sick, or if they do, it will not be a big deal. The reality is that most of our recent cases are among young people. We also see some young people experiencing serious complications, and what makes that especially troubling is we really don’t know the long-term complications of the virus yet. 

One of my younger friends told me a story about going to a birthday party. When she got to the party, she saw that the place was packed. She looked for a way to judge the airflow, believing it would be safer if there was air movement. Ultimately, she left the party because she didn’t feel comfortable and decided it wasn’t worth it. She did the right thing.

Other people have told me the same thing: places jammed with people shoulder to shoulder, talking loud and laughing. Many restaurants have not removed tables or spaced them farther apart or marked off some areas to limit seating. In some places, even the staff are not all wearing masks.

Businesses are required to protect employees and staff by limiting occupancy, ensuring 6 feet of distance between parties and requiring employees and customers to wear masks, among other measures. If you are concerned or have questions about these requirements, you can 211.

From individuals to businesses to local leaders, we all have to do our part. If we can all do what is needed, we can reduce the number of cases, reduce the number of deaths and better protect everyone’s health. 

I was very saddened to hear about a couple who recently got married. No one wore a mask and the guests were all close to each other. Both the husband and wife got the virus and they had to cancel their honeymoon. That’s how they started their new life together. What should have been the best time of their lives instead started with each of them being sick.

We have all read the stories about other families where one person gets sick and dies. Too often, the person didn’t even have the risk factors. People think that because they are healthy, they won’t get sick.

My husband was sick from the virus and was in the hospital for almost two months. He was in isolation, but he could see whenever someone in the hospital died and their body was rolled out past his room. He was dismayed and saddened each time he saw this. 

Our biggest challenge is how to re-engage people, how to convince them that we’re not out of the woods. I don’t know the answer, but we are developing public service announcements using prominent voices from our communities, hoping that people will respond and wear a mask when it is being promoted by people they know or trust.

I am also concerned about our rural areas. We don’t have many cases in these less-populated areas, but we are seeing some cases. I worry that people who live farther away from one another are not as aware of the risks as they need to be.


  1. Please do not close the gyms they are so very important for those of us who use it for rehabilitation for health reasons. Most of those gyms are very well-maintained and hygienic in all forms. Please know that this is so very very important.

  2. I am flying into New Orleans from Ft. Lauderdale Florida this Friday. Are there any quarantine restrictions that I will have to adhere to ?

    1. No. Louisiana does not have quarantine requirements based on travel. However, just like everywhere else, the Louisiana Department of Health recommends that people monitor their health. If they develop any signs of illness, they should stay home and call their doctor.