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Shawn Vestal: The pandemic feels over, but it’s still raging among the unvaccinated

UPDATED: Mon., May 31, 2021

Student Miles Lewis receives a COVID-19 vaccine from Adam Phillips, an RN with Spokane Public Schools during a vaccination clinic held by Spokane Public Schools on Friday, May 14, 2021, at North Central High School in Spokane, Wash. On Monday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized use of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine for 12- to 18-year-olds.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Student Miles Lewis receives a COVID-19 vaccine from Adam Phillips, an RN with Spokane Public Schools during a vaccination clinic held by Spokane Public Schools on Friday, May 14, 2021, at North Central High School in Spokane, Wash. On Monday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized use of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine for 12- to 18-year-olds. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

It’s old news that the country lives in separate coronavirus realities.

The advent of the vaccines, which offer the best hope to end the pandemic, somehow only deepened the divide.

In one coronavirus reality – aka Actual Reality – people are being vaccinated and protecting themselves against getting and spreading COVID-19. In the other – aka Politicized Conspiracy World – nobody’s getting their shots, and the pandemic is raging.

This is not just a rhetorical flourish.

The COVID-19 case rate among unvaccinated people in Washington is as high right now as it was near the pandemic peak of late January, according to an analysis by the Washington Post.

The Post broke down COVID data by vaccinated versus unvaccinated populations in each state. What it found was that in some states – and Washington is one – there are stark differences between these populations. When those are smoothed into a single number, the case figures hide an ongoing pandemic among the unvaccinated inside a waning pandemic among the vaccinated.

This results in an “unrealistically optimistic” picture of the threat to the roughly half of Americans who have not gotten shots, the Post reported.

The Post’s analysis concluded that the case rate among “susceptible, unvaccinated people is 69% higher than the standard figures being publicized. With that adjustment, the national death rate is roughly the same as it was two months ago and is barely inching down. The adjusted hospitalization rate is as high as it was three months ago. The case rate is still declining after the adjustment.”

Almost half the national adult population is vaccinated. In Washington state, it’s similar – 52% of the population age 16 and over is fully vaccinated. (Spokane County continues to lag, at 42%).

The vaccination numbers, along with overall declines in case numbers, have helped drive a relaxation of pandemic precautions. The CDC changed its mask guidance – announcing that vaccinated people could safely ditch them – so suddenly it took state leaders by surprise, and created a complicated set of considerations for local leaders and business owners trying to balance federal, state, and local guidelines, along with their own sense of what’s safe and practical. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee set a date of June 30 for fully reopening – earlier if we hit 70% vaccination first, which seems unlikely.

Everywhere you look, vaccinated people are losing the masks, eating with others indoors, holding babies and sharing hugs. For those who have lived carefully over the past year, it’s like a new day has dawned, and the pandemic is ending.

But that simply isn’t true for everyone.

The state Department of Health says that the case numbers for unvaccinated Washingtonians between ages 45 and 64 is 18 times higher than those for vaccinated people. Among those 65 and older, the hospital admission rate for COVID-19 is 11 times higher among unvaccinated people than for those who’ve gotten their shots.

The Post analysis shows a big gulf between the two populations in Washington state. On May 19, the case rate for vaccinated Washingtonians was 13 new daily cases per 100,000 population. Among the unvaccinated, it was 24 – comparable to the numbers in late January, when case numbers were near their winter peak.

Not every state showed a large difference between unvaccinated case rates and the overall average. Unsurprisingly, this is frequently the case in states with low vaccination rates driving the overall average – in Idaho, for example, where not quite a third of residents are vaccinated, the overall case rate is only slightly lower than the unvaccinated case rate.

The schism between these two populations presents a tricky problem for public health officials, who want to emphasize the good news and promote the positive possibilities for vaccinated people – while not underselling the real dangers still facing those who have not been immunized.

“I hope this does not become a tale of two societies,” Washington’s secretary of health, Umair A. Shah, told the Post. “The people who are vaccinated and are protected can resume their lives, taking off their masks.

“The people who are not vaccinated are the ones who are not wearing a mask or washing their hands. Those are the very people who often times will socialize and be around similar like-minded people. You’re going to have the pandemic continue in those clusters.”

We already live in the scenario Shah fears – a tale of two societies. The dream of defeating the virus is being downgraded to a dream of merely managing it as the nation evolves separate pandemic realities: one where it’s gone and one where it goes on.

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