Vaccines are here, but we must remain vigilant

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: Washington and Oregon residents are lucky to live in the Pacific Northwest, where state leaders have consistently taken the COVID-19 pandemic seriously, listened to public health experts, enacted early mask mandates and stay-at-home orders and limited indoor activities shown to be at high risk of spreading the virus. 

Those statewide measures, combined with the hundreds of thousands of residents who decided they would forego nearly a year of normalcy to help save lives in their community, who have stayed home, worn their masks, washed their hands while singing two rounds of the “Happy Birthday” song about 40 times a day, avoided public gatherings and even celebrated Thanksgiving without their loved ones, have prevented Washington and Oregon from becoming hotspots during this pandemic.

The same has not been true in places like the Dakotas, where Republican state leaders, following the outgoing Trump administration’s lead, poo-pooed COVID-19’s severity; refused to shutdown restaurants, bars, gyms, theaters, schools and sporting events; and fought mandatory mask requirements until the virus was completely out of control. 

The results of those state leaders’ inactions have been devastating. Earlier this month, North Dakota and South Dakota ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the world for daily COVID-19 deaths per million residents.

Meanwhile, Washington and Oregon — along with Vermont, Maine and Hawaii — have consistently had the lowest infection rates in the country. 

This is good news, of course, but it also means that we could be in for a very dangerous winter as people in the Pacific Northwest tire of the COVID restrictions and start to believe that, because we’ve been spared the worst horrors of the pandemic — kept at a comfortable distance from the freezer trucks turned into morgues in Arizona and the emergency orders for more body bags in California — we can now be just a little less vigilant. 

We all long to spend time with our friends and family, go out for a good meal at a local restaurant, visit relatives over the holidays, hug our grandparents, see a new release at the movie theater, go to a concert, rip off these stuffy masks, gather with our coworkers for lunch and see our children playing with their friends and learning inside a classroom again. 

Unfortunately, this is the worst time to let our guards down. 

Yes, there is hope on the horizon now. We have several vaccines that are proving to not only be highly effective at preventing COVID-19 infections but also safe for the vast majority of the population. 

Still, it will take several months to reach a safe point in this pandemic, where at least 70 percent of Washingtonians have been vaccinated and COVID-19 is no longer passing freely through our communities. 

Until then, we need to familiarize ourselves with the true toll this pandemic has had in other parts of the country and the world. 

Our schools have been closed for months, so we haven’t had to deal with the heartbreak happening in other communities like Hillsborough County, South Carolina, where a 28-year-old third-grade teacher known for her singing voice died of COVID-19 in September, just one week after spending a day inside her school building for a professional development event; or Fort Wingate, New Mexico, where a healthy, 44-year-old third-grade teacher known for her big hugs and for putting her students first, died of COVID-19 on Dec. 11; or Grand Prairie, Texas, where a couple in their 60s, both longtime educators, died of COVID-19 on Sunday, Dec. 13, holding hands with their children as they succumbed to this awful disease; or Stanly County, North Carolina, where Julie Davis, a 49-year-old third-grade teacher who had left her accounting job for a teaching career in 1999 after witnessing the horror of the Columbine High School shooting in Colorado and telling friends she wanted to be a teacher to help protect students, died of COVID-19 on Oct. 4.

Likewise, we have mostly been protected from hearing about the nearly 2,000 deaths of health care workers who have literally given their lives to help others during this pandemic — people like 44-year-old vocational nurse Jessica Cavazos, who worked at a nursing home in Texas and died of COVID-19 on July 12; 43-year-old Elva Garibay, a nurse with 20 years experience who died in Texas on Nov. 16; 59-year-old nurse practitioner Freddy Espinoza, who died of COVID-19 on Dec. 10; 44-year-old Nueva Parazo Singian, a nurse practitioner at a Cerritos, California assisted living facility who died Sept. 5; and, closer to home, 46-year-old Carola Montero, a mother of four and member of the cleaning staff at Providence Portland Medical Center, who died of COVID-19 on Dec. 6. 

As we head into what many public health experts have warned will be the darkest days of this entire pandemic, remember that for every single one of the “more than 300,000 COVID-19 deaths” we’ve accumulated over 10 months in this country there is a story about a human being who was loved and who will be desperately missed.

As we head into the holiday season, we must cast aside our own frustrations, remember the Americans lost to this pandemic and agree as an entire community that we will dig in for just a few more months and continue to wear our masks, stay home as much as possible and practice all of the safety measures known to prevent the spread of COVID-19.