Opinion: Safeguard your health when voting in-person

While the COVID-19 pandemic and upcoming flu season might be the biggest health issue on most Georgians' minds, there is another health issue rapidly approaching: Election Day. You might be surprised to hear a doctor writing a prescription for healthy voting, but you shouldn’t be. The pandemic has made voting in 2020 a health issue.

We know that lines and crowding during elections can spread COVID-19. Here in Georgia, the June primary forced voters to endure long lines and long waits at many locations. New voting machines were delivered late, poll workers hadn’t been sufficiently trained to troubleshoot the new machines, and precincts consolidated in the face of poll worker shortages and building closures caused by the pandemic. In response, judges ordered polling places to stay open late in many counties, including the Atlanta area.

Months later, coronavirus case rates are still dangerously high.

Anne Mellinger-Birdsong

Credit: contributed

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Credit: contributed

Dr. Neha Pathak

Credit: contributed

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Credit: contributed

We want to avoid creating these conditions again in November. In the same way that we advise you to wear seatbelts or eat healthy, we also have a duty to advise you on how to stay safe while exercising your right to vote. Voting the way we have always done in the past is simply not safe during this pandemic. Because of the need to avoid crowding and congestion, how elections are conducted has become a health issue.

Here is your prescription for safe and healthy voting.

Even if you think you are already registered to vote, be sure to check that your registration is up to date. You can do both at https://www.mvp.sos.ga.gov/MVP/mvp.do.

Second, make a voting plan to avoid crowds and vote from the safety of your own home. Because we can’t predict when or where the pandemic will flare up, it’s safest to request an absentee ballot even if you normally vote in person. Even if you are young and healthy you are still at risk of COVID-19 like the freshman high school football player in Statesboro who was forced off the field by serious heart inflammation. We are just starting to learn about the lingering effects of COVID-19: things like brain and nerve issues, chronic fatigue and chronic pain. We don’t yet know how long the damage from COVID-19 will last. Voting from home protects you. By decreasing crowding at the polls, you also protect those who have to vote in-person, as well as poll workers, and your entire community.

Third, get your vote in early. By voting early absentee, you can make sure your absentee ballot has time to be counted. Georgia has recently taken important steps to protect health by allowing the online request of absentee ballots, expanding the availability of drop boxes, and allowing early counting of absentee ballots. Drop boxes are a good option -- you avoid exposure from election offices and avoid uncertainty about mail delivery. You can find drop box locations at ajc.com/politics/where-are-absentee-ballot-drop-boxes-in-metro-atlanta/YWWVPFUDFZF5ZB6JLH5S33UIEU/.

Returning your ballot early also gives you more time to correct any problems, which must be completed within three days after the election. This is especially important for those who are sick or exposed to COVID-19 and may need extra time.

Finally, if you decide to vote in-person, follow these healthy voting practices: be sure to wear a mask, maintain physical distancing, and practice hand hygiene. If you vote early in person, you will help prevent crowding at the polls on Election Day. You can find sites for early in-person voting at https://www.mvp.sos.ga.gov/MVP/mvp.do. Early voting starts Monday, October 12. Shorten the time you are exposed by being prepared with photo ID and a completed sample ballot. That way you can rapidly mark your ballot and verify your choices against the paper printout from the new touchscreen voting machines that have been shown to produce errors at times.

Voting is a civic responsibility critical to the health of the nation. By following this prescription, you can protect your health and our Atlanta community while exercising your right to vote.

Anne Mellinger-Birdsong M.D., is a pediatrician and medical epidemiologist who has worked at the CDC and the Georgia Department of Public Health. Neha Pathak, M.D., is a primary care physician, advocate for health equity, medical writer, and editor, whose recent written work has focused on the health impacts of COVID-19.