America’s Other Major Public Health Crisis

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Social distancing has changed nearly everything about American life, from the way we shop for groceries to the way we worship and go to school. One of the things it hasn’t changed, unfortunately, is the scourge of gun violence.

From Chicago to Philadelphia, stay at home orders have sadly proven no deterrent to America’s other major public health crisis. Bed space that is desperately needed for COVID-19 patients is being shared by gunshot victims. And healthcare professionals are crying out for help.

“I get these pages almost every night at the trauma center where I work. I rush to put on my protective equipment to guard against blood and other bodily fluids,” Dr. Elinore Kauffman, a fellow in surgical critical care and trauma surgery at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed. “But for the first time, I’m saving clean masks to reuse them. Because of coronavirus, the parents of my patients need a special escort because visitors are not allowed in the waiting room. I can’t bring a family to a gunshot victim’s bedside in the intensive care unit. I can’t tell a frightened mother that she can stay as long as she wants.”

“Doctors like me are trying to keep the world safe from the coronavirus pandemic. But thousands of families in America are already caught in the country’s existing epidemic: gun violence,” she wrote.

I recently spoke with one young activist who’s turned to digital media amid the shutdown to try to spread the anti-gun violence message and encourage other young Pennsylvanians to register to vote.

My conversation with Kayleigh Wolfe, 16, a junior at Spring-Ford High School, and a resident of Limerick, Pa., just outside Philadelphia, has been lightly edited for content and clarity.

Wolfe is a member of the anti-gun violence advocacy group Students Demand Action.

Q: So how did you get involved with Students Demand Action?

Wolfe: “I got involved in Students Demand Action after Parkland, like many young people did. I wanted to prevent tragedies like that. I’ve been a captain for a little over a year now. We contact students from all over the country about different issues that we’re focusing on at that point, and talk to them about the different actions they can [take] to prevent gun violence.

“I heard about the virtual field offices [that are opening up] and I wanted to get involved. So I signed up to be a leader. The virtual offices have three main goals – voter registration, mobilization, and advocacy and campaigning. Our goal is to register 100,000 people across the country and thousands across Pennsylvania. We’re focusing on key battleground states, with Pennsylvania being one of them.”

Q: With the headlines swallowed up by the pandemic, and all the legislative action focused around coronavirus relief, it’s been hard for other issues, such as gun violence, to rise up. How are you trying to elevate the debate around gun violence reduction?

Wolfe: “Gun violence is a very serious crisis in this country, and in Pennsylvania. In Pennsylvania, more than 1,500 people are shot and killed every year. It’s definitely a big issue, and it’s important to prevent it so we can save lives. One way to do that is to elect leaders who will help keep our communities safe from gun violence.

“It’s important to emphasize to people that coronavirus hasn’t stopped gun violence. Just because people are social distancing … there are shootings every day in cities like Philadelphia. It’s not stopping these shootings and gun violence.”

Q: So what does advocacy and outreach look like in the age of social distancing? How have you changed what you’re doing?

Wolfe: “It’s definitely an adjustment. With me already being part of the text team, we’re already used to that to do virtual advocacy and texting. It has prepared me for this time. It’s important to contact people through social media – that’s been a help getting people to register to vote.

“… We’re training volunteers in relational organizing, which is where you reach out to people you already know, and talk to them about why they should register to vote, and why gun safety should be an issue.

“… I use Instagram and Twitter mainly. Students Demand is on Instagram. Personally I find it to be more effective on Instagram. I have more followers, and I’m more connected with my peers on Instagram. They see my posts more regularly.”

You don’t need to agree with Wolfe to appreciate what she’s doing. She’s a reminder that, even in these impossible circumstances, that so many Americans are finding a way to give back to their communities. The young people who are active today become tomorrow’s leaders.

And that’s always good news.

Copyright 2020 John L. Micek, distributed by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

An award-winning political journalist, John L. Micek is Editor-in-Chief of The Pennsylvania Capital-Star in Harrisburg, Pa. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @ByJohnLMicek.