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Shawn Vestal: The pandemic surges again in Walla Walla, sounding an alarm

FILE – In this Monday, July 12, 2021, file photo, Karen Martin receives a COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination clinic hosted by James River Church West Campus in conjunction with Jordan Valley Community Health Center in Springfield, Mo. COVID-19 cases have doubled over the past three weeks, driven by the fast-spreading delta variant, lagging vaccination rates in some states and Fourth of July gatherings. The five states with the biggest two-week jump in cases per capita all had lower rates, Missouri, 45.9%; Arkansas, 43%, Nevada, 50.9%, Louisiana, 39.2% and Utah, 49.5%.  (Nathan Papes)
FILE – In this Monday, July 12, 2021, file photo, Karen Martin receives a COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination clinic hosted by James River Church West Campus in conjunction with Jordan Valley Community Health Center in Springfield, Mo. COVID-19 cases have doubled over the past three weeks, driven by the fast-spreading delta variant, lagging vaccination rates in some states and Fourth of July gatherings. The five states with the biggest two-week jump in cases per capita all had lower rates, Missouri, 45.9%; Arkansas, 43%, Nevada, 50.9%, Louisiana, 39.2% and Utah, 49.5%. (Nathan Papes)

In some quarters, it can sure feel like the pandemic is over.

The story of Walla Walla’s current outbreak is a check against that overconfidence.

Walla Walla County – the wine-country home of a hip little town, prestigious Whitman College and a state pen – sits at the center of a sharp regional surge of COVID-19, a trend running counter to the general good news statewide.

The county now has a case rate more than five times above the state average. Similar high rates are being recorded in surrounding Benton, Franklin and Umatilla, Oregon, counties.

This pocket of pandemic is humming along at a higher rate than it was during last year’s summer peak.

Unsurprisingly, most Walla Walla cases have occurred among unvaccinated adults and children, Meanwhile, two COVID-19 variants, Delta and Gamma, have been detected there, though the full picture of their impact on the recent rise is not yet clear. We know for a certainty, though, that the combination of the variants and low community immunity can be disastrous.

The high numbers in Walla Walla County reveal – again – that the pandemic has split in two. The vaccinated world has reason to feel good about declining case rates, hospitalizations and deaths; the unvaccinated world is still living in the same pandemic they were before the advent of the vaccines.

The trouble is that these worlds overlap. Our case numbers nationwide are heading up again, bolstered by the unvaccinated.

The reality of this split may be buried, somewhat, by populationwide statistics. Washington’s overall hospitalization rate is declining, for example. But the most recent state figures show that unvaccinated people aged 45-64 had a hospitalization rate 16 times higher than people in that age group who are vaccinated.

Among people older than 65, the unvaccinated were hospitalized at a rate 12 times that of the vaccinated, the Department of Health said.

Like these hospitalization numbers, the cases in Walla Walla remind us that this is not over, nor is it predictable.

Cases there have been very high and rising for several weeks. For the most recent two-week period ending Thursday, Walla Walla County had a case rate of 348 per 100,000 – the highest in Washington by a good bit and a leap from the previous two-week rate of 300. (That’s the figure for the community, not the prison, which has had a very few cases lately).

The state average is 67.5. Spokane County’s rate is 74.8.

Raw numbers show the trajectory: there were 69 cases in Walla Walla County in March (and 61 in the penitentiary), according to the county health district.

That jumped to 172 cases in April, dipped to 159 in May, and jumped again to 370 in June. There were just five prison cases in those three months.

Two men in their 70s died this week, the county announced.

Of the increase in recent cases, the county’s Department of Community Health said it “has linked nearly 90 percent of the county’s active cases to residents who are not vaccinated, including a large number of residents ages 45-60 and young children who are not yet eligible to receive the vaccine.”

About 58% of Walla Walla County residents older than 16 have gotten at least one shot; statewide that figure just reached 70%.

The fact that most cases are among the unvaccinated means, of course, a small number are breakthrough cases – infections in people who have had their shots. These are mild cases, and some number of them are to be expected, but in an environment in which lots of people are unvaccinated, the pandemic is nourished and the risk of breakthrough infections is greater.

Neighboring Benton County, where 54% of those older than 16 have initiated vaccination, is at 185.7 cases per 100,000.

Franklin County, where that vaccination figure is 47%, is at 157.1.

Nearby Garfield County, where less than a third of those 16 and older have gotten even one shot, is also showing a high rate of cases, with a rate per 100,000 of 224.7.

Our vaccination rate is stalling out all over the place, driven by a craven political opposition. Our statewide average is good, but that figure is lower than it should be in many places, including here – Spokane County is at 56%.

We find ourselves at a truly absurd pass. The arrival of the vaccines offered such hope, but the bizarre, cynical resistance to them is cause to despair at the failures of common sense and community-mindedness that prevent us making more progress.

That’s the story the Walla Walla case numbers are telling. There’s no reason to think it will be the last one.

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