MIAMI — Antonia Novello, the first Hispanic person to serve as U.S. surgeon general, is spending her birthday on Monday administering Covid-19 vaccinations at a health center in San Juan, Puerto Rico — and urging more Latinos to get vaccinated and wear masks.
Novello, who was surgeon general under President George H.W. Bush, divides her time between her native Puerto Rico and Orlando, Florida, where she is based.
Florida has been hit hard with a surge of Covid-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths during recent weeks, as the highly contagious delta variant sweeps through the state. The majority of hospitalizations are among unvaccinated people.
In Florida, masks have become a hot-button issue, as the new school year begins. At least seven school districts have defied Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’ requirement to allow parents to opt out of having their children wear masks. Last week, the state gave two districts, Broward and Alachua, 48 hours to comply with DeSantis’ order or face the withholding of funds equivalent to the salaries of the superintendent and school board members.
Dozens of doctors from Palm Beach County staged a walkout on Monday to encourage the community to get vaccinated and described the exhaustion they feel as they continue treating unvaccinated patients.
“It’s very difficult to know why they don’t want to get the vaccine — the science is there,” Dr. Nestor Galvez, a neurologist with the Cleveland Clinic in Weston, Florida, told NBC News’ Kerry Sanders. This is especially concerning since there are countries that don’t have the same access to vaccines that the U.S. has, according to Galvez, who is from Panama.
Novello believes that in addition to vaccines, the only way to eliminate the virus is by wearing masks and practicing social distancing and proper hygiene.
“I always say if you are in a close containment, wear your mask. … At this stage of the game, the mask and the distancing is your salvation,” Novello said by telephone from Sociedad de Educación y Rehabilitación, in San Juan, where she was inoculating people.
Novello said she still sees too many unmasked people when she spends time in Orlando and said they sometimes look at masked individuals, like herself, as if they were “crazy.”
Orlando’s mayor on Friday asked residents to stop watering their lawns and washing their cars, saying water usage needed to be cut back because the city’s liquid oxygen supply used for water treatment had to be diverted to hospitals for Covid patients.
Novello drew a comparison with Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, where teachers must be vaccinated and schools have to comply with regulations, like ventilating classrooms, and masking is enforced. “I don’t see the same in Florida,” she said.
“At this moment, people have to make a decision,” Novello said, and decide what’s more important: what governments say as they downplay the importance of masks “or the salvation of your life and your child.”
“You can obey the government or you can obey your own common sense, because the livelihood of your family is at risk,” she said.
Novello said she was surprised in May when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that fully vaccinated Americans no longer needed masks indoors. She said it was too soon and DeSantis “took it almost as a mandate.”
The CDC reversed course in July, urging people in Covid-19 hot spots to resume wearing masks indoors. The guidance is only a recommendation, leaving it up to governors and local officials whether to mandate masks.
“Delta is the most infectious, the most transmissible and the most dangerous of all the variants of SARS that we have had in the United States since 2012,” Novello said.
“The science says that there are 1,200 units of virus in the nose and mouth,” she said, adding that those who carry the delta variant can infect another person in 20 seconds if they are in close contact.
“At this moment, the politics is interfering with the common sense of the people wearing their masks,” Novello said.
Earlier in August, Novello participated in a historic White House gathering of all living former U.S. surgeon generals to discuss getting information and access to vaccines to communities of color, who have often been the hardest hit during the pandemic.
Novello thinks that at the start of the pandemic in 2020, White House news conferences on the coronavirus should have had immediate translations in Spanish and for people who are hearing impaired.
She said it’s important to have localized education campaigns to remove fear and vaccine hesitancy, especially among Latinos and other communities that could be facing obstacles, including language barriers.