History shows a ‘return to normal’ without protocols in place is irresponsible

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category icon Columns, COVID-19 coverage, Opinion

Every morning I document the numbers of COVID-19 cases in the United States via Worldometer, a site that gets its numbers from state health departments, which obtain theirs from daily county reports. I started this ritual in mid-March because I wanted to see the changes in real time, not just as reported on television.

Historians like myself piece stories of the past together from primary sources: the documents, photographs, artifacts or interviews that tell us what happened, how and why. We evaluate sources according to type, some for information, others to understand the human experience.

I have pieced together some history about the 1918 influenza at Vancouver Barracks from Public Health reports that included the prevalence of disease on military posts as reported by state health departments, local newspaper articles and city council meeting minutes. These reports documented the rise and fall of influenza in Vancouver, from no reported cases between July and September 1918 to 593 in late October. Early that month, Vancouver’s City Council, first in the state, halted all public gatherings, including schools and churches. At Vancouver Barracks that fall, so many more people died than usual that the Army built a new morgue.

We know from 1918 that millions upon millions died from an especially virulent flu that often turned into pneumonia. We also know that it settled down briefly, but returned in mutated from, hitting stronger and harder than before. We know that when it came to Washington State, our leaders acted quickly.

When I began my COVID-19 count on March 18, Washington State had just over 1,000 diagnosed cases. Nationwide, 117 people had died of COVID-19, nearly half (55) in our state. By April 1, a week after Governor Jay Inslee issued the “Stay Home” order, I recorded 5,482 documented cases and 225 dead in Washington. Six of the deaths were from Clark County. As I write a month later, Washington has just over 12,000 diagnosed cases and 652 dead from COVID-19. Nineteen have died in Clark County. Nearly 1 million are diagnosed nationwide.

Meanwhile, very little testing has taken place here. Even those who were extremely ill could not be tested due to a lack of resources. Clark County has now tested fewer than 3,000 people, and we are closing in on 300 positive cases. We don’t know how many have it.

But we do know more than we did a month ago. We thought then that it was not airborne. It is. We thought then that masks were useless. They aren’t. We heard it really only affects the elderly. It doesn’t. Many thought it similar to seasonal flu. It’s not. The virus spreads too fast and is too dangerous to be ignored. It is “novel” and “antigenic,” meaning it is new to humans and can change and adapt. We know that achieving herd immunity without a vaccine means a lot of dead people. We know that Washington State would have a lot more dead if our state leaders had not acted quickly.

All of this — the history, the real-time numbers, the stories of dying family members and what it is like to struggle for breath while battling this virus — is why I was shocked last week to hear of the mistrust about the realities of COVID-19.

We all want to return to normal. We are all concerned with the impact to small businesses. We are all concerned with human lives. We must weigh the lost business revenue and joblessness, isolation of seniors, increased suicide and domestic violence rates against the rapid community spread of a very real disease. We must balance the broad public health with the very real needs of our population to pay rents and mortgages, buy food and experience the world around them. We must recognize that suffering comes from multiple avenues, but death is final.

I am glad to know that three branches of Washington State’s legislature banded together to propose ways to re-open the economy. I am glad that most recognize the need to cooperate in a bipartisan way. I hope that together they will focus on evidence from experts and recommend business protocols from both epidemiologists and business owners. I hope the plan will be grounded in the reality that widespread testing is not available, not for the virus and not for antibodies, and that this is not for lack of trying on the part of our state. Nor do we have the public health capacity for widespread contact tracing. Acting as though this is over without putting solid protocols in place would be irresponsible, not just because of direct impact by COVID-19, but because business as usual is a recipe for further restrictions and economic and social loss. 

After the flu pierced Vancouver in 1918, citizens were required to wear masks if they went out in public. Businesses had to keep their windows open. The newspaper recommended a freshly cut onion in the middle of a room could keep the virus away. We know better.

Historians do not rely only on a single document or story or the word of a single individual – ever. We can’t ignore evidence or operate on ideology or we will not be respected. Our job is to uncover the past based on available evidence, whether we like what the sources tell us or not. We should apply the same standards of analysis to our understanding of COVID-19 today. 

Donna Sinclair, Ph.D, is a history professor, author, Washougal School Board member and candidate for state representative in the 18th Legislative District.