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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: We might be done with the virus, but it isn’t done with us

National Guard members help staff at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center perform mask-fitting tests during a deployment in January and February 2022 in Spokane.  (Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center courtesy)
National Guard members help staff at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center perform mask-fitting tests during a deployment in January and February 2022 in Spokane. (Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center courtesy)

Again and again, we’ve been done with the coronavirus before the coronavirus is done with us.

Here we are once more: The CDC and local health officials recommend that counties like ours – with a surge in cases and hospitalizations – implement mask-wearing to help limit viral spread and protect the community.

I’m going to go out on a very sturdy limb and predict that we won’t see another formal mask rule anytime soon, for a variety of reasons. One is the insane political difficulty of such measures, given the large, conspiratorial approach to public health that poisoned our coronavirus response generally.

Another is the lack of a widely understood policy – at the local or state or national level – about how we negotiate a pandemic that waxes and wanes, a policy which might outline how we deploy short-term interventions like mask mandates or testing in times of rising cases. A policy that falls somewhere between all-hands-on-deck and all-clear.

Still another is our widespread complacency about it.

Our sense that we’re done with it.

Among the exhausted public, the palpable rush to a post-pandemic mindset is everywhere, even as it has been very common in the past couple of months for people to come down with COVID-19. The desire to be done is so strong – there is a psychic exhaustion that the pandemic has wrought, a kind of collective post-traumatic stress.

But the virus isn’t done.

Case numbers in Spokane County and around the state are up – nothing like the winter surge, but very much going in the wrong direction. For a couple of months, we’ve been in the range of 1,000 cases a week, and so many people are testing at home now that it must be considered a massive undercount. The state Health Department estimates that reported cases make up less than 10% of all infections.

Our hospitalization rates resemble February, when the massive winter surge was waning but still high. Deaths have remained low by the worst pandemic periods, but are steadily accumulating at between two and four per week, according to Spokane Regional Health District data.

Last week, the CDC named Spokane County as one of 15 Washington counties with “high” case numbers, recommending that people wear masks to bring down the spread.

Spokane County’s health officer, Dr. Frank Velasquez, is also recommending that people wear masks and exercise other precautions to help contain the spread.

In addition to us, Clallam, Grays Harbor, Pacific, Lewis, Thurston, Pierce, Chelan, Douglas, Grant, Ferry, Lincoln, Walla Walla, Columbia and Asotin counties all have high case rates, the CDC said.

Not done.

Writing in the Atlantic recently, Ed Yong argued that we have entered the do-it-yourself period of the pandemic, with governments eager to claim victory and move on, or acting in politically motivated ways that are actively hostile to public health.

“But COVID is far from solved,” Yong wrote. “The coronavirus is still mutating. Even at one of the lowest death rates of the pandemic, it still claims the lives of hundreds of Americans daily, killing more than twice as many people as die, on average, in car accidents. Its costs are still disproportionately borne by millions of long-haulers; immunocompromised people; workers who still face unsafe working conditions; and Black, Latino, and Indigenous Americans, who are still dying at higher rates than white Americans.”

We have, directly in our rearview mirror, powerful and dispiriting examples of what happens when we ignore COVID-19. Researchers at the National Institutes of Health published a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association this week that showed COVID was the third-leading cause of death for Americans between March 2020 and October 2021.

About 700,000 people died of the disease in that period (The total number of U.S. deaths has now exceeded a million; in this study, researchers used death-certificate data, for which the most recent information available was last October.)

For all age groups, COVID ranked behind heart disease and cancer – which together accounted for 2.15 million deaths – and ahead of accidental deaths and stroke.

For people age 45 to 54, though, it was the leading cause of death between January and October 2021. This was a big change from the first year of the pandemic, when it was the fourth-leading cause of death among that age group.

So many of these deaths were preventable. We know that hospitalization and death are much, much more likely among the unvaccinated, and the high number of people dying of COVID-19 in their 40s and 50s reflects this.

The JAMA study did not calculate deaths among the unvaccinated. But a team at the Peterson-KFF Health System Tracker did just that – and found a crushingly high death toll.

“We find that approximately 234,000 deaths since June 2021 could have been prevented with primary series vaccination,” they wrote in an analysis updated in April. “These vaccine-preventable deaths represent 60% of all adult COVID-19 deaths since June 2021, and a quarter (24%) of the nearly 1 million COVID-19 deaths since the pandemic began.”

We’re not in anything close to last winter’s surge, and that’s good. But the rising numbers – and the unpredictability of viral mutations – are good reminders that we may be done with the coronavirus, but it isn’t done with us.

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