We are moving into better times in terms of COVID-19, the public health officer for the North Olympic Peninsula told an audience of business people.
That’s for the time being. Conditions may change.
In her nearly hour-long Chamber Cafe discussion presented online by The Chamber of Jefferson County on Friday, Dr. Allison Berry noted that both Clallam and Jefferson counties have, after months of case rates increasing, transitioned into the lower and moderate categories.
In Jefferson County, “the good news is we’ve just crossed that threshold,” she said, adding Jefferson’s rate is down to 71 cases per 100,000 population — which is in the low category. Berry noted this even before the county public health website had been updated.
In Clallam County, she added the rate hovers at 105 cases per 100,000, in the moderate range.
Yet there’s a major challenge at this point, Berry said. The perception that COVID is “over” is a dangerous one. Case rates are rising in the United Kingdom, she said, and that could mean another American surge isn’t far off.
“A gentleman was hospitalized yesterday” on the Peninsula, Berry added.
“He is in his 40s,” and infected with the omicron variant.
“Now is a time when cases are down and it’s a reasonable time to relax our mitigation measures — to mingle more, for many of us to unmask in indoor spaces,” Berry said later.
“Even in Clallam, we are likely to see case rates drop below 100/100K by Monday.
“However, we will very likely see case rates rise again in the coming months, due to BA.2, waning immunity, and the relaxation of mitigation measures.”
This is a critical time to move forward with booster shots and full vaccination, Berry said, adding that Jefferson County’s boosted rate is particularly high.
The county likewise has one of the lowest COVID death rates in the United States, she noted: 87 deaths per 100,000 population. That’s far below the rate of death nationally.
At the same time, virus variants continue to endanger people, especially those over 65 and with health conditions such as cancer, Berry said. Long COVID, which can bring neurological problems to people of any age, continues to be a real risk.
The health officer’s message now: There is much we can do, as individuals and as a community.
Good masks — N95s and KF-94s — protect people who are older, immunocompromised or who have a household member who is vulnerable. Berry herself has a toddler who is too young to be vaccinated, so she is careful to mask in indoor settings.
A layered mask that fits your face snugly — it pulls in when you breathe in — is a powerful thing, Berry explained. Early in the pandemic response, she worked in clinical practice and saw people with COVID every day. Because she masked carefully, she did not catch the disease.
If you have active cancer, Berry said, you should continue to wear a quality mask when indoors with people outside your household.
And if you have been vaccinated and boosted and you’ve got your mask on, you can go out — which can greatly boost your mental health, she said.
“We are a social species. Wearing a mask when no one else is feels weird,” Berry acknowledged.
“When I go shopping in Clallam County, I’m the only one with a mask,” and even she feels strange.
Whatever the state and county rules are regarding masks, business owners are still free to require them, Berry noted. She advised posting a sign at the front entrance to provide the clearest possible message.
“Most people are reasonable” about putting on a mask, she believes; “the people that are unreasonable are very loud.”
Berry said that some who got booster shots did feel sick after getting the jab and talked about it a lot. Berry herself said she had flu-like symptoms for several hours after her booster shot, and then they disappeared.
If you have no symptoms following your booster, that does not mean it didn’t work, Berry noted. Vaccination, including booster shots, continue to protect people from severe COVID, keeping hospitals from being overwhelmed.
She also cautioned against the belief that once an individual has had COVID, they’re immune for good.
“In Clallam County, up to 20 percent of our cases are reinfections,” Berry said.
At this point, the health officer added, we are still grappling with what the pandemic has done to our lives.
“All of us have lost something,” she said.
“All of us have faced a really astounding hardship, one way or another.”
She said later that when cases rise again, health officers will recommend that people wear masks.
“I do agree with the analogy of masks to raincoats. We put them on when case rates are high and take them back off when case rates are low,” Berry said.
“The more we as a society can get comfortable with transitioning in and out of mask wearing, the smoother any subsequent waves will be.”
Berry on Friday expressed her gratitude to the community for making sacrifices throughout the past two years. The measures people have taken in their businesses and in their daily living, she added, have helped keep their vulnerable neighbors alive.
Berry’s discussion was recorded and will be posted in about a week on the Chamber of Jefferson County YouTube channel (found via jeffcountychamber.org), chamber executive director Arlene Alen said.
“Thank you for the service you’ve given to the community,” Alen told Berry at the close of her talk.