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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: By the most important metric of all – lives saved – Inslee’s approach stands out

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee puts on a mask after speaking at a news conference Aug. 18 at the Capitol in Olympia.  (Associated Press)
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee puts on a mask after speaking at a news conference Aug. 18 at the Capitol in Olympia. (Associated Press)

At this time two years ago, the coronavirus had arrived in the Seattle area and had not yet shown up in Spokane.

We were still more than a week away from Gov. Jay Inslee’s emergency proclamation, and a barrage of closures – annual events, restaurants and businesses, and schools – was about to come down.

It’s hard to recall what it felt like then, but I don’t think anyone had a good idea about what was coming. I remember a lot of hopeful conversations about the pandemic – maybe, if we were lucky – being finished by fall.

Since then, through the waves of case spikes, the arrival of the vaccines and the various politicized battles over everything, the reopenings and mask mandates, the upheavals in schools, and the continual tests of patience for even the most responsibly cautious people, there has been this one baseline reality that, strangely, often falls completely out of public debates about how we should respond to the pandemic.

A massive number of people have died. An enormous wave of death and grief played out while so many argued childishly about the supposed tragedy of wearing a mask.

As we approach what feels – once again – like an end-is-in-sight moment, we have lost more than 931,000 Americans to COVID-19.

That’s 386 times the number of U.S. military deaths over 20 years in the war in Afghanistan.

Three-hundred-nine times the death toll of Sept. 11, 2001.

Twenty-four times the number of deaths in auto accidents in 2020.

Only heart disease and cancer killed more people than COVID-19 last year.

In that context, it seems that the single biggest metric on which to judge a state’s response should be how good a job it did in keeping people alive.

Few governors have done this as well as Inslee.

This state was ground zero for the pandemic in America, yet we are on the downslope of the Omicron surge with one of the lowest death rates in the country.

For every 100,000 people in Washington, 149 have died of COVID-19.

That’s a lot of people, and it could have been far fewer, given what we know about the ravages of the disease among the unvaccinated.

But it’s the sixth-lowest rate of death from COVID-19 in the nation, and it’s far lower than most states where governors took the opposite tack – no masks, no vaccine mandates, no closures, no nothing.

Next door in Idaho, for example, the death rate has been 255 per 100,000.

If we had their rate, we’d have lost an additional 8,071 Washingtonians.

An entire Sequim – gone.

Down in Florida, where Ron DeSantis became a conservative hero by eschewing nearly all public health considerations, the death rate was more than twice ours, at 315 per 100,000.

If we had that rate here, it would have translated into 12,640 more deaths.

A Liberty Lake – vanished.

And, though there are many who lost their jobs and businesses that have suffered , and though there are some high-death states with stronger GDPs, Washington’s economic recovery has been sound.

Last year, the state had one of the highest rates of job growth as a percentage of pre-pandemic employment (4.8%) and recovered a higher percentage of jobs lost initially in the pandemic (81%) than the national average (78%), according to the University of New Hampshire’s COVID-19 Economic Crisis project.

If you want to look for a more pronounced downside, it’s not hard to find in the realm of education. Test scores took a nosedive after the year of at-home learning, though there are many grains of salt to be taken with those numbers at this point.

The larger crisis exists among the students we lost – thousands and thousands of students who fell off the radar of their local school districts. A Seattle Times report put this figure at 29,000 statewide. This is a crisis among kids who were already on the edge of crisis, and the consequences will be long-lasting.

But it’s simplistic to see pandemic burdens as only school-closure burdens – as if it would have been magically possible to create a perfectly undisturbed educational world during a pandemic. For all the mystifying hue and cry about reopening the schools, remember that our schools here have been open this year. They stayed open as omicron spiked, with a few daily exceptions, even as districts struggled to find enough substitutes to cover classes for all the sick teachers and as seemingly every kid in town caught the bug.

It’s clear at this stage that not everyone puts saving lives at the top of their priority list. From day one, a large number of people have minimized the death toll by minimizing the value of those who died.

They were just old, see. Just sick. Just fat or ashmatic or diabetic.

A lot of people wanted to just throw them into the volcano to appease the gods of the economy.

The pandemic response has involved a lot of trade-offs, and this isn’t to say that Inslee has done a perfect job or there haven’t been costly trade-offs. Many people are furious with him, feeling that it’s time for the masks to come off; this impatience is understandable. When the time comes, I’ll rip mine off with gusto.

But if protecting human life is at the top of your list of priorities, and if you understand the difference between the inconvenience of masking and the Holocaust, then give the governor credit: He kept thousands of Washingtonians out of that volcano.

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