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Shawn Vestal: We’re doing our worst – literally – to make this an unnecessarily awful summer

Shawn Vestal  (DAN PELLE)
Shawn Vestal (DAN PELLE)

When it came to coronavirus precautions in Spokane County, we lost our minds on Memorial Day weekend.

Can we regain them by Labor Day?

Wouldn’t it be nice to think so? The widespread loss of caution – especially among the invincible-feeling young – has now allied itself with the misinformation machine to brutal effect. Our cases have tripled since May 25, and hospitalizations are moving upward.

Deaths have not risen here, but what’s happening elsewhere is that deaths begin to rise days or weeks after initial case surges. We’re now one week beyond our single-day high of 98 cases, and the experts say we haven’t peaked yet.

So maybe a corresponding rise in deaths isn’t going to happen. We should hope so. But it could still be coming.

Let’s mask up and hope for better days. If we continue down this road, the two holidays that traditionally bracket vacation season will be the bookends for something worse: the season when we collectively and unnecessarily made too many of our neighbors sick, put too many of our fellow citizens in the hospital, let too many in our community die of a disease that can be largely controlled with a few simple precautions that too many of us couldn’t be bothered to take.

I wish the smart money weren’t on the worst-case scenario – here, over the border in spiking Idaho and across the leaderless nation.

Recall, if you can, the spirit of Memorial Day 2020.

Following weeks of begging by the County Commission and Mayor Nadine Woodward, we were granted state permission to move from Phase 1 to Phase 2 of the governor’s stay-home order. At that point, Spokane County had 487 reported cases, 33 deaths and no single day with more than 21 cases reported.

The move to Phase 2 was meant to be a cautious step toward reopening. It became, for many, the end of all caution. Fat Tuesday. A combination of impatience, irresponsibility, ignorance, misinformation and mask idiocy combined to produce an explosion of cases.

I don’t say this as someone who’s been perfect; I’ve let my guard down, too, out of impatience or a seemingly urgent, selfish sense of desperation to do something or go somewhere or see someone, though we’ve tried to be careful in my house about the most important actions: masks, distance, hand-washing.

And yet everywhere you look, you see people who are not just slipping, not just backsliding a bit – but throwing in the towel completely. The failure to mask up is the most visible outward signal of this, and our health officials estimate that more than a third of us aren’t wearing them in Spokane County. For a small but too large number of it, a bare face has become a twisted symbol of pride.

Worse, too many voices with authority on the right, starting at the rotten top, have peddled irresponsible claims, minimized reality, distorted science and spread misinformation.

As a result, they have become coronavirus allies, fostering the spread of the illness as they foster the spread of nonsense.

The cost of this, nationally and locally, is high and rising rapidly. In Spokane County, we’ve had 1,455 cases between May 25 and July 10. That’s three-quarters of all COVID-19 cases reported here since our very first infection. In the first 10 days of July, it picked up speed: 563 cases.

That’s almost 100 more cases in July than we posted in the 72 days before we entered Phase 2. Hospitalizations have also doubled in July.

In other words, Phase 2 has been a disaster, and Phase 3 is a distant dream. We are nowhere near meeting the criteria for further opening: Our case numbers are too high, our testing is too low and the percentage of positive tests is more than twice what it needs to be to advance to Phase 3.

As is true of the national spike in caseloads, our death numbers have not risen correspondingly. Seven deaths have been reported since Memorial Day.

The reasons for this disparity are not yet fully understood – but neither is the picture complete. One factor may be the sharp rise in cases among young people, for whom the consequences are often less serious. Treatments may be improving, as well.

But epidemiologists have been emphasizing that there is also a natural lag between case reports and death reports; people get it before they die of it. On top of that, there is a lag between a COVID-19 death and the reporting of it. The Atlantic’s COVID Tracking Project estimates that there is an average of a seven-day delay between a COVID-19 death and the public reporting of it, on top of the delay between infection and death.

“Deaths lag cases – and that might explain everything,” The Atlantic wrote. “(T)he official reporting of a COVID-19 death can lag COVID-19 exposure by up to a month. This suggests the surge in deaths is coming.”

After all, other places that saw initial post-Memorial Day surges of cases with low death rates, such as Florida, Arizona and Texas, are now seeing corresponding surges in deaths.

Again, that is a national assessment, and it’s one flocked with caveats. However, our skyrocketing caseloads are a problem even if the number of deaths remains low. For one thing, even a few unnecessary deaths should trouble us all – as opposed to considering them just the price of doing business. For another, the illness has other long-term consequences we don’t yet understand.

And when it comes to the future spread of the virus, all those bar-hopping youngsters have associations with other people. It doesn’t stop with them.

It’s a shared problem. Fighting it demands something that our post-Memorial Day experience suggests we’re not very good at: shared effort.

Unless we regain our minds, Labor Day promises to be the end of an unnecessarily awful summer, though far from the end of the pandemic.