Typhoid Mary story provokes response from readers

Here is a hypothetical question. Say “Paul” is professional of some kind: medical, culinary, whatever. But his is a job in which he comes into close direct physical contact with a lot of people. Paul has a highly communicable disease and he knows it. He is an American citizen, but he was tested in another country. And because of that, those medical records did not follow him back here. He could provide them voluntarily, but he doesn’t have to. Paul is completely asymptomatic, and he cannot guarantee in any way that he will not transmit his disease to others, even if he takes precautions, even extreme precautions. It is a disease that will kill a small proportion of the population. He knows that. But doing what he does is highly profitable. He could do other things, but he wouldn’t make anywhere near the kind of money he makes currently, and he has spent his entire life working towards this particular goal. Only he knows of his condition and there is absolutely no way to trace any infection back to him specifically, especially without his consent.

Is it ethical or moral for him to continue what he is doing? Is it legal? Do his individual rights, to privacy, to his medical records, to the pursuit of happiness, outweigh the risks he presents to his clients? To the population in general?

It is an interesting question, especially in these times. I offer no opinion, but instead offer some of the opinions of some others. Others who read last week’s column about Typhoid Mary and wrote in about it. Here are a few of the letters I received, all have been edited for space.

“Today’s column was timely and well-stated, and I hope it makes a big impression on people who are anxious to get everything open again. I am 69 years old and my husband and I have been staying at home since mid-March. Everyone is antsy, but until it is safe, we wait. And we wash our hands! My best friend is a kindergarten teacher and hand washing is part of the curriculum for 5-year old’s!”

A San Rafael resident.

“Thank you for your article about Typhoid Mary.  I have heard about her my entire life.  I am 70 years old and my parents would be 112 years old, if they were alive.  They knew all about her.  I was Not surprised when the statistics on Covid 19 came out; that probably 50% of people were asymptomatic of the disease. I live in a Senior community.  I talk to many people around my age and no one has heard of Typhoid Mary.  I just could not believe it. I have many other contacts besides my small enclosed community and once again; people that I talk to or e-mail have not heard of Mary.  I am a former schoolteacher (amongst a number of other jobs or professions.)  My teacher’s retort would be, this is the computer age, look her up.  It is a good thing that Mary did not work in a restaurant in NYC.  She could have sickened hundreds of people and caused many, many to die.  She worked for rich families in NYC.  She was well liked and a great cook, as you said.  So, her spreading her illness was thus, somewhat limited. It has been close to 100 years since Mary infected so many.  However, no laws have been enacted to stop “carriers” such as her.  Hopefully, this Covid 19 virus will force lawmakers to do so.”

A Novato resident

“Thank you for your most excellent and timely essay regarding ‘Typhoid Mary’.  It has been frustrating for me to try to convince people in my family and social circle, that asymptomatic carriers exist.  I think your article does a much better job at explaining than I ever did. I especially liked the part about Mary not washing her hands much.  I did not know that.”

A Registered Nurse.

Leaving me with these thoughts and few quotes:

-Morality and legality are not the same thing.

-“If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics,” once said Joseph Stalin.

-Just because you can do a thing, does not necessarily mean that you should do it.

-“Morality, like art, means drawing a line someplace,” once wrote Oscar Wilde.

-Peoples concern about risk seems to increase exponentially depending upon their exposure to it.

-Does your surgeon or a cook have a right not to wash his or her hands? Just asking.