COVID-19 is raging in Clallam County at unprecedented levels. In the past two weeks, one out of every 100 county residents has tested positive. The true number of infections is likely 10 times that number. Local hospitals are overwhelmed, as our most other hospitals in the State. If you need emergency care for COVID or anything else, access to that care is no longer assured.
How did this happen and what can we do about it?
The current surge in COVID-19 cases is a self-inflicted wound. We had the vaccine supply and delivery system in place to immunize 85 percent of residents 12 and older by mid-July. This effort faltered because of a toxic mix of disinformation and distrust. To make matters worse, activity restrictions and masking requirements were prematurely ended in late Spring just as the highly infectious Delta Variant spread through the State.
Ongoing requirements that unvaccinated individuals continue to mask indoors were routinely ignored. People returned to their pre-pandemic lives. And Delta began to burn through the community, like a mindless, raging fire in a bone-dry forest.
We are now encircled by the blazing fire. Public health agencies are called upon to contain this fire, to coordinate a community response, and to protect the vulnerable — children, the frail elderly, and the many people who have chosen to remain unvaccinated. And while many have mobilized to address this common threat, something else, both dangerous and perverse is going on.
As the fire rages, voices on social media decry the fire as a hoax. Others try to wrestle the firehoses out of the hands of the fire fighters. Still others insist on their constitutional right to start fires, pour gasoline on existing blazes, and rush into burning buildings.
This analogy tragically describes our current pandemic response. Some political leaders call for a ban on mask mandates, citizens loudly defend their right to infect others in the name of personal choice, and people absurdly equate vaccination requirements for some occupations to the worst horrors of the World War II holocaust.
This is no way to end a pandemic. There is another way. We start with what we have learned so far:
1) COVID is caused by an airborne virus, mostly spread by unvaccinated people in indoor spaces before they know they are infected.
2) The Delta Variant is highly transmissible. Things that people have been able to do without getting infected earlier in the pandemic are now resulting in infection. When one member of a household gets it, everyone else in the family is usually infected.
3) Vaccines are highly effective at preventing serious illness, hospitalization and death. They are incredibly safe – among the safest vaccines ever developed. They are less effective at preventing all forms of illness. They do not work for everyone — some vaccinated individuals have no protection at all. Their effectiveness may diminish over time.
4) COVID-19 is not like influenza. After invading our bodies through the respiratory tract, it attacks our circulatory system causing kidney, heart, and brain damage in addition to the life-threatening complication of COVID pneumonia. Survivors have a 10- to 30-percent chance of lingering symptoms, some disabling.
5) The amount of virus we are exposed to makes a difference, both in terms of getting infected and how severe that infection is. Masks, distancing, improved ventilation, and moving social gatherings outdoors all reduce the exposure risk. None offer 100 percent protection but do dilute the virus concentration enough to prevent serious infection, even in the unvaccinated.
‘Future is unwritten’
Embrace these facts and you can safely navigate the remaining months of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ignore them and it is just a matter of time before you become infected and likely spread that infection to friends and family. And the worst time to get infected is at the peak of a pandemic surge when medical systems are overwhelmed. Treatment for COVID has improved dramatically but may not be available if our hospitals are overwhelmed with cases.
No forest fire burns forever and so too all pandemics eventually come to an end. Globally COVID-19 will burn for years. In the U.S. we have the technological capability to contain this pandemic in a matter of months.
The unanswered question is do we have the wisdom, compassion and political will to do it. Right now, the answer seems to be no. But the future is unwritten. Vaccination levels are starting to rise. We are learning more about the virus every day.
“Personal choice” does not include the right to spread infection recklessly. It does involve the responsibility to make wise and responsible choices. We need to support the brave firefighters who battle the COVID blaze.
The majority of Clallam County residents are sane, responsible and community-minded. They need to reject the misguided obstructionism of those who aren’t.
Dr. Locke served as health officer for Clallam County from 1987-2015 and for Jefferson County from 1996-2021. He is board certified in preventive medicine and public health and has 45 years of experience as a practicing physician.