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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / The Whitfield County Health Department is seen on Tuesday, March 24, 2020 in Dalton, Ga.

As coronavirus cases surge in the community at rates that nearly lead the state of Georgia, commissioners in Whitfield County have once again balked at the idea of mandating masks and even shot down a resolution that would have simply recommended that people wear masks in public.

The decision came after a lengthy and emotional plea from one of Whitfield County's most respected public health officials, Dr. Pablo Perez of the Hamilton Health Care System. Perez said there is enough scientific evidence that masks reduce the spread of the virus. The evidence comes from other countries and parts of the U.S. that have implemented mandates that are seeing fewer cases than places without a mandate.

"When you see the transmission of this virus is so low, people are not afraid because they have been accustomed [to wearing masks]," Perez said of those parts of the country. "In our community, we are facing a very tough situation."

Perez said he is increasingly alarmed about the positivity rate of COVID-19 in Whitfield County, and wearing masks is one of the only proven ways to prevent the virus's spread. People keep dying of the virus, Perez said, and mask mandates help prevent deaths.

"This is not about politics," he said. "This is about public health."

Perez also took on a popular misconception that COVID-19 is only as dangerous as the flu. In Whitfield County, he said, only two people have died since March due to complications from the flu. That number is over 60 for the coronavirus.

The refusal to issue a countywide mask mandate comes after two commissioners — Roger Crossen and Barry Robbins — have tested positive themselves. Crossen is in the intensive care unit and Robbins is quarantined and showing no symptoms.

Board Chairman Lynn Laughter is also in quarantine after her husband tested positive for COVID-19.

Laughter has long been an advocate for implementing a mask mandate in Whitfield County but has struggled to get her fellow commissioners on board. This time around, the resolution to issue a mask mandate came from a letter signed by the leaders of six hospitals in the region including Hamilton Medical Center CEO Jeff Myers and the heads of Erlanger Health System and Parkridge Health System.

During Monday night's commission meeting, which was held virtually due to the COVID-19 cases, Laughter asked if the commission would consider passing a mask mandate.

Three other commissioners attending — Robbins, Harold Brooker and Greg Jones — did not make a motion. Laughter then asked if any of the commissioners would consider a resolution that would say the commission recommends people wear masks in public.

Brooker made a motion and Laughter seconded after more reluctant silence from Robbins and Jones.

"I think it's the least we can do to try to prevent at least one more death in our community," Laughter said. 'We're sending a clear signal to our citizens tonight, guys."

The motion then failed 2-1 with Jones and Robbins voting against it. Laughter typically only votes to break a tie.

In August, more than 40 people showed up to a commission work session to push back against a possible mask mandate. Dr. Zachary Taylor, director of the North Georgia Health District, tried to dispel misinformation about the coronavirus at that meeting and was heckled by some members of the audience.

At that meeting, all other commissioners said they would not support a mandate.

Whitfield County has recorded 789 new COVID-19 cases in the past two weeks and has had 5,899 cases per 100,000 people, one of the highest rates in Georgia.

The county recorded 95 new cases on Nov. 5, its highest since recording 107 on July 31. There have been 67 deaths attributed to the virus in Whitfield County.

As Monday's meeting adjourned, Laughter reminded those in attendance to pray for Commissioner Crossen.

"He's really, really sick, so remember to pray for him," she said.

Contact Patrick Filbin at pfilbin@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickFilbin.

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