During the past week, the news has been filled with rising COVID infections. This is not the news we were hoping to hear in the height of summer.
Instead, health officials we look to for guidance are raising concerns about the unwelcome spread of COVID variants; raising concerns about low vaccination rates, and questioning the late-spring guidance easing mask-wearing requirements for fully-vaccinated individuals.
Although vaccines are more accessible and are proving effective at preventing people from becoming seriously ill from COVID-19 variants, members of our community are still at risk.
In addition to children under the age of 12 and those choosing (or needing) to remain unvaccinated, the elderly, the immunocompromised and individuals with developmental disabilities (I/DD) — especially those with Down Syndrome — remain at risk. For them, the pandemic is not over.
The community protections offered from mask wearing, social distancing and low social interactions have diminished, if not disappeared, in daily practice. The loss of these community health supports have a direct impact upon individuals with I/DD, whether they are vaccinated or not.
Report after report documents how COVID-19 poses a greater risk to individuals with I/DD. And it does so to younger individuals than in the general population. The decreased ability to understand and adopt physical distancing, to wear masks correctly, coupled with coexisting health conditions and a rotating door of caregivers — some vaccinated, some not — increases the possibility of becoming infected.
The Center for Disease Control and the Down Syndrome Medical Interest Group-USA acknowledge and promote the overall effectiveness of the current vaccines to prevent people from becoming seriously ill. However, both agencies admit that data regarding the effectiveness of vaccines for individuals with Down Syndrome is incomplete.
Currently, highly contagious variants are rapidly spreading among the unvaccinated. Vaccines have prevented severe disease against all known variants. While there is some breakthrough of COVID in vaccinated individuals, to date, these cases have been mild.
However, the longer that community spread continues through the unvaccinated population, the more likely that a variant will arise that will breakthrough to cause severe disease even in the vaccinated.
It is imperative that we get ahead of this, increasing vaccination rates and preventing community spread to prevent the virus from “winning.”
We know the pandemic will eventually end. We know that vaccines and new treatments for COVID-19 are leading us towards a non-lethal disease. But we are not there yet.
We still need to work together to decrease the spread, decrease the opportunity for variants to form. We need to protect our children, our loved ones with coexisting health conditions and known vulnerabilities.
We can help decrease the opportunity for variants to form and spread by continuing to practice what we know.
We know that physical distancing, that wearing masks correctly, that washing our hands, that getting the vaccine decreases our risk of being infected. We know that contact tracing helps curb wide infectious outbreaks.
We need cautious optimism. We need to continue providing community protections.
Catherine McKinney is program and communications director for Clallam Mosaic, a local nonprofit that strives to empower individuals with special needs. Visit clallammosaic.org/p2p.