“Washington has come a long way since the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the country was found in our state in January 2020,” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said in May, just a few weeks before reopening the state and removing most COVID-19 restrictions on Wednesday, June 30. “That is in no small part due to Washingtonians’ dedication and resilience in protecting themselves and their communities throughout the pandemic.”
With the reopening of the state — which removes most of the state’s COVID-19 capacity limitations and physical-distancing requirements and allows businesses and indoor facilities (with the exception of a few facilities like hospitals, long-term care centers, doctor’s offices and schools) to decide their own mask requirements — comes a sense of relief that, as more people over the age of 12 have become fully vaccinated against the SARS-CoV-2 virus, we are seeing COVID-19 cases, hospitalization rates and deaths dropping in our region, mingled with a growing apprehension about the fact that lifting restrictions known to suppress the transmission of a highly contagious, airborne virus could lead to the creation of variants that are more contagious, more deadly and more likely to evade COVID-19 vaccinations and treatments.
As Inslee said when he announced the state’s reopening, there is still work to be done in Washington as well as in the rest of the nation and world.
“This next part of our fight to save lives in Washington will focus on increasing vaccination rates and continuing to monitor variants of concern as we move toward reopening our state,” Inslee said.
Though there are things to celebrate right now, local officials and community leaders must make sure to temper their excitement over the state’s reopening with the fact that some of the most knowledgeable public health experts in the world are still sounding the alarm over the Delta variant, which has devastated India, is about 60 percent more contagious than the original, “Alpha” version of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and described by World Health Organization experts as “the fastest, fittest COVID variant” with the potential “to be more lethal because it’s more efficient in the way it transmits between humans.”
The only positive reports connected to the Delta variant show COVID-19 vaccines, particularly the mRNA vaccines like the ones produced by Pfizer and Moderna, are still highly effective at staving off the variant and causing severe illness from COVID-19.
“The good news is that we have vaccines that can squash the Delta variant,” Eric Topol, the director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, recently told The New Yorker. “The bad news is that not nearly enough people have been vaccinated. A substantial share of Americans are sitting ducks.”
The Delta variant is quickly making its way through our nation, causing an uptick in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths in many areas — including Wyoming, Missouri and Iowa — that have not vaccinated enough of their population. Missouri, for instance, which has only vaccinated about 38 percent of its population against COVID-19 and where the Delta variant now makes up nearly 48 percent of COVID cases, has seen a 55 percent uptick in the number of COVID cases over the past two weeks. As one news report noted on June 23 — when the Delta variant was only about 20 percent of COVID cases in Missouri — the state had seen a recent rise in severe COVID-19 cases among the young and unvaccinated.
“Health care workers in southwest Missouri are sounding the alarm over a wave of young, unvaccinated COVID-19 patients who are now filling hospital beds,” ABC News reported on June 23, quoting a nurse manager of a medical surgical COVID-19 unit out of Springfield, Missouri, as saying she and her staff “have seen the patient population over the past year go from elderly people who are immunocompromised or have multiple other conditions to, more recently, younger individuals who ‘don’t think COVID is real’ and haven’t been vaccinated against the disease.”
Many experts have cautioned the Centers for Disease Control’s recent guidance on face coverings — which, in what seems like an astoundingly naive understanding of human nature, relies on unvaccinated people (many of whom have blatantly disregarded community COVID restrictions since early 2020) to be honest about their vaccination status and continue wearing masks at indoor public spaces — came far too soon.
As Dhruv Khullar, a physician and assistant professor at Weill Cornell Medical College wrote in a recent New Yorker opinion piece, where he compared reopening the country and lifting COVID-19 restrictions while fewer than half the nation had been inoculated against the virus to a ship coming upon an iceberg: “Any reopening society that’s failed to vaccinate everyone, a collision between the virus and the vulnerable is inevitable.”
For unvaccinated Americans, Khullar warned, “this could be the most dangerous moment in the pandemic.”
In Clark County, only 44.6 percent of the total population is considered fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Likewise, in Washington state, only about half of the total population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19. In nearby Skamania County, which has, luckily, been spared from some of the more devastating impacts of the pandemic, fewer than 30 percent of residents are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
With vaccination rates that have not yet covered even half of our population, including children under the age of 12 — many of whom, according to Mayo Clinic vaccinologist Dr. Greg Poland, are experiencing more severe cases of COVID-19 and “facing a more infectious virus that has viral loads inside their body about four times higher than the virus that circulated last year” thanks to the Delta variant — we cannot afford to just pretend everything is fine and life has returned to a “normal,” post-pandemic state.
Officials in our school districts, cities and counties must help keep the Delta variant from spreading uncontrolled. So far, what we’ve seen from Camas city officials — who will require employees to show proof of COVID vaccination if they want to go mask-free inside city buildings — and from the Camas and Washougal school board members, who have remained firm in their commitment to keeping COVID-19 safety measures intact inside our local, public K-12 schools, has been a positive start.
Now, we need those same officials to help promote higher COVID vaccination rates and shine a light on business and community leaders who remain committed to protecting their unvaccinated and vulnerable employees and customers from the fast-moving Delta variant.