Washougal’s rush to ‘move past COVID’ is premature in face of highly contagious delta variant

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category icon Editorials, Opinion

It comes as no surprise that a few officials in the city of Washougal are pushing for people to “move on”’ from the COVID-19 pandemic even as news that the incredibly contagious delta variant, which is now causing COVID rates to spike in 45 states, has made its way to Clark County. 

After all, this is the same city council that wrote to the governor to push back against statewide COVID safety precautions less than two months after the pandemic began in the spring of 2020, saying then that the state’s safety measures seemed better suited to the big city of Seattle than the little town of Washougal — as if a deadly airborne virus might prefer the Space Needle over the Columbia River Gorge. 

We saw what happened when restrictions loosened last summer and people started to let their guard down — meeting in groups, not wearing masks and acting as if the pandemic had passed — after COVID rates skyrocketed in the fall and prevented local students from returning to in-person classes throughout most of the school year. 

Rates are, thankfully, dropping again now, thanks to extremely effective COVID vaccinations, and state restrictions have, indeed, loosened for those who have received the vaccine. Unvaccinated individuals are still supposed to be wearing face coverings in public, but since many of those who are refusing to be vaccinated are the same people who fought the mask mandates, it’s doubtful there is much compliance. 

As rates drop, Washougal leaders are back in the spotlight again, calling for people to “break out of the negativity and fear” over an illness that has claimed more than four million lives since March 2020. 

“There’s a lot of people still in that COVID mindset: ‘I don’t think we can,’” Washougal City Council member David Stuebe said recently. “It’s like they want to test the waters, and we don’t have time for that.”

And why doesn’t Washougal have time to see if the new loosened COVID restrictions and the possibility of a surge in the delta variant cause local COVID cases to start climbing again?
Because the city wants to throw summertime community events. 

“We’re opening the door. This is the first opportunity to be back with our neighbors and back with the community and have fun,” Stuebe said.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to enjoy a more “normal” community life again — we’ve all been too isolated, too removed from our neighbors, coworkers and loved ones, too worried about an invisible virus and too overwhelmed over the past 16 months — but there are two good reasons why our local leaders should be wary of throwing open the floodgates and welcoming hundreds if not thousands of people to gather mask-free in their downtowns.  

Recent news reports coming out of new COVID hot spots like Missouri and Mississippi, where COVID vaccination rates are low and the delta variant is running rampant, make it clear this new variant, which is much more contagious than the original COVID strain, could be a game-changer in Clark County, where less than half the population is vaccinated against COVID, including all of those younger than 12 who are not yet able to receive the vaccines. 

And while the original COVID strain mostly spared children and younger people, the delta variant seems to be different. In Mississippi, for instance, there are now at least two children on ventilators — thanks to the delta variant. (Editor’s note: the state health officer corrected an earlier report stating 10 children were on ventilators after this editorial appeared in the July 15, 2021 Post-Record.)

“We have more pediatric admissions than we had early in the pandemic,” warned one state Mississippi health officer this week, adding that nearly all of the COVID cases in Mississippi right now are the delta variant and that the “vast majority of cases, hospitalizations and deaths” are among those not vaccinated against COVID. 

Earlier this month, Fortune magazine published an article titled, “The kids are (not) alright: Europe sounds the alarm as delta variant soars among teens and 20-somethings,” which showed COVID infections are rapidly increasing among young people in Spain and other European nations. 

And in response to England, which is set to fully reopen on July 19 despite rocketing delta variant infections, a group of more than 4,000 health professionals published a letter in the Lancet journal this month, calling the reopening a “dangerous and unethical experiment.”

Of course, we are fortunate that we have not yet experienced a surge in delta variant COVID cases in Southwest Washington. But our region’s vaccination numbers are nowhere near the 70 percent or more threshold that seems to be protecting people in highly vaccinated states like Vermont and even Oregon from a delta surge.

We know the current COVID vaccines are thankfully still holding strong against the delta variant, but our local vaccination rates should make local leaders think twice before declaring it time to move on from the pandemic. 

In Washougal, only 47 percent of those ages 16 and older have had at least one COVID vaccine shot. In areas north of the city, toward Yacolt, the numbers are much lower, with less than 26 percent of those ages 16 and older having received a single dose of the vaccine. 

Younger people are especially susceptible to the delta variant, especially those younger than 12 who cannot yet be vaccinated. In Clark County, only one-fourth of those ages 12 to 15 and 40 percent of those ages 16 to 19 have been vaccinated against COVID. Fewer than 45 percent of county residents in their 20s and early 30s are vaccinated against COVID.  

If the delta variant does take hold in Clark County, we should demand our local leaders take heed — studies have shown the delta variant spreads about 225 percent faster than the original COVID strain, and is more infectious, “with people showing about 1,000 times more copies of the virus inside their respiratory tracts than those infected with the original strain of the coronavirus,” according to a recent NPR report.  

Until we know more, officials should still caution their unvaccinated constituents to take precautions against catching the virus, including masking in public and avoiding large gatherings — and urge their vaccinated population to be aware that they may be able to transmit the delta variant even if they are asymptomatic, and they may still become ill with COVID. 

We also would urge local officials to follow the World Health Organization’s recommendations regarding the delta variant as they roll out summertime events like the movies in the park and the new Summerfest and, if COVID cases begin to creep up here again, keep in mind what a WHO official recently told CNBC reporters: “People need to continue to use masks consistently, be in ventilated spaces … physical distance, avoid crowding. This still continues to be extremely important, even if you’re vaccinated when you have a community transmission ongoing.”