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Shawn Vestal: The problem is the pandemic, not the ‘divisiveness’ of public health

In this photo provided by the Defense Visual Information Distribution Service, Idaho National Guard Brig. Gen. Russell Johnson, the dual-status commander for the state of Idaho, speaks with members of the U.S. Army medical team during response operations at Kootenai Health regional medical center in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho,on  Sept. 6, 2021. Kids in Coeur d'Alene were getting ready for their first day of school when Idaho public health officials announced this week that northern hospitals were so crowded with coronavirus patients that they would be allowed to ration health care. Kootenai Health has had to move some patients into a conference room and get help from the military to deal with the flood of coronavirus patients.  (Kaden D. Pitt)
In this photo provided by the Defense Visual Information Distribution Service, Idaho National Guard Brig. Gen. Russell Johnson, the dual-status commander for the state of Idaho, speaks with members of the U.S. Army medical team during response operations at Kootenai Health regional medical center in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho,on  Sept. 6, 2021. Kids in Coeur d'Alene were getting ready for their first day of school when Idaho public health officials announced this week that northern hospitals were so crowded with coronavirus patients that they would be allowed to ration health care. Kootenai Health has had to move some patients into a conference room and get help from the military to deal with the flood of coronavirus patients. (Kaden D. Pitt)

Idaho Gov. Brad Little, who is fiddling like Nero as his state’s COVID-19 crisis rages, says he’s concerned that the president’s vaccine mandates will create “divisiveness.”

Lord save us from the Chicken Littles who are now performatively concerned, when it comes to the pandemic, with everything but the pandemic.

Obesity. Horse paste. Fake science. Bodily borders. Freedom!

Divisiveness.

Please. As the hospitals overflow, some of us would prefer more of an actual divide between those who have been sane and responsible and those who are foisting the consequences of their extravagant selfishness onto others.

More space between the vaxxed and the anti-vaxxed.

More distance between the masked and angrily unmasked.

A larger divide between the population that has tried to end the pandemic and the one that has aided and abetted the illness and deaths of their neighbors.

As hospitals in Spokane fill up and limit non-COVID care, it would be nice, honestly, to have a thicker, more resilient border between our hospital system and the tragically overburdened one in Idaho, which is now sending its overflow our way.

And maybe, so long as we’re engaging in outlandish hyperbole, we could build an even thicker, even more resilient border between numbskull adults and innocent kids, whose risks have been generally much lower than the rest of us, but who are now seeing rising rates of infection, hospitalization and even deaths, surging along with the rest of the delta.

It would not be such a horrible fate, after all, to be even more divided – split into the wise land of post-pandemic normalcy, and the realm of the never-ending pandemic.

The problem is, we can’t be. Not in the important sense. We live among each other, and that is where the virus thrives.

It’s just one person inhaling the illness of another, on repeat.

So, at this stage of the misinformation pandemic, it seems entirely fair and reasonable to say that, if you can’t bring yourself to get the safe, effective vaccine, you don’t need to be out spreading your consequences onto everyone else as a firefighter or a cop or an overpaid football coach or a federal contractor or a concert-goer or an airplane traveler.

It’s become necessary to force this choice onto the reluctant given how high the cost has become for everyone else, and given the early signs that mandates are helping to increase vaccination rates.

Consequence, meet freedom of choice.

It’s not wrong that we are politically divided over the pandemic, of course. Is it the fault of the voices of sanity, though? Of course not. Our disagreements are deep, seemingly irrevocable, and often bizarrely stupid, but the thriving pandemic is now a wholly owned subsidiary of the post-Trump, post-truth Republican Party, which has adopted conspiratorial, anti-public-health positions at every step along the way.

The divisions that Little pretends to elevate as a chief concern are already deeply implanted, and they were planted not by public health champions. Extremist members of Idaho’s Legislature are now trying to call a special session not to deal with the fact that the entire state’s hospital system is rationing non-COVID care – but to gin up feverish, red-faced opposition to vaccine mandates that might help address the crisis.

What possible hope of unity exists within such madness? There is no unified middle where the wisdom of getting a safe and effective vaccine shares space with the insanity of refusing the vaccine and going all-in on sheep drench, just to own the libs – and it isn’t wisdom that’s to blame.

Whether our civic union is strong or strained doesn’t matter at all – not one bit – in terms of the most important pandemic metrics. More and more people are getting sick, no matter what your opinion of this fact. Hospitals are desperately overloaded and stressed, whether you “believe” it or not. The ICUs are full of people dying from a disease that many of them did not take seriously enough – we’ve all heard the now-common tales from hospital workers treating people dying from a disease they don’t believe in.

COVID doesn’t care.

The virus comes for you anyway. And it comes for other people as a result, including some who got the shots. The vaccines work very well but not perfectly.

Spokane’s COVID hospitalizations are at record highs. Almost all the people in Spokane’s ICUs didn’t get the shot. Ninety-one percent of people in Idaho hospitals are unvaccinated. The rest had their shots but ended up getting sick anyway because the delta variant has been given such a nice, nourishing home to thrive in.

Is it divisive to point out who’s to blame for that?

Idaho has the lowest vaccination rate in the country, a thriving far-right movement that equates mask mandates with the Holocaust, and a statewide reluctance to do the two things that might arrest the pandemic: raise vaccinations rates and require masks in crowded indoor spaces.

Just last week, the Coeur d’Alene School Board refused to adopt a mask mandate for kids in a town where the cases are running wild.

Would it be divisive to note what a cowardly failure of leadership this was?

Idaho’s emergency is now Spokane’s emergency, as their overflow patients are being sent to us. We may be divided about the proper pandemic response, we’re not divided enough in terms of the consequences.

Meanwhile, the delta phase is becoming worse and worse for children. A doctor with Kootenai Health Pediatrics, Vanessa Carroll, spoke to the Coeur d’Alene Rotary Club last week, and delivered a grim reality. Based on skyrocketing cases nationwide among children, and the rate of hospitalization for those kids, Carroll said that it’s possible that at this rate, some 60 children in the Coeur d’Alene School District could get sick enough to require hospitalization, according to a story on her presentation in the Coeur d’Alene Press.

That’s more than the total number of pediatric ICU beds in Spokane, Portland and Boise.

The way to stop that is simple: shots and masks.

Which – not to be divisive! – everyone with a lick of sense already knows.

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