Prematurely lifting mandates to ‘return to normal’ is wishful thinking

A number of Washington students — including hundreds of students who have protested K-12 mask mandates in Washougal, Ridgefield and Cowlitz County this month — are joining a growing list of people across the globe who are fed up with public health mitigations meant to slow the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19.

Several states, including Oregon, have already set dates for an end to indoor mask mandates and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee is likely to follow suit this week.

While we can understand why — as we enter our third year of a pandemic that has touched pretty much every aspect of our lives — people are desperate to “return to normal,” prematurely lifting mitigations meant to slow transmission of COVID-19 will not magically erase a disease that is currently killing more Americans than those we lost on 9/11 on a daily basis.    

Even if we agree that it’s somehow OK to ignore the very real threat COVID still poses to the millions of Americans who are immunocompromised, have a pre-existing health condition that might make the COVID vaccines less effective or who cannot be vaccinated against COVID (including children younger than 5), we can’t get around the fact that none of us truly understand the long-term impacts of this virus. 

Some of the things we thought we knew about COVID early on — that it wasn’t airborne; that it didn’t really affect children; that it was just like having a bad cold for 99 percent of us; that natural immunity would protect us from catching it again — have turned out to either be completely wrong or simply not hold up to new research or in the face of new variants like the aggressive delta and the extremely contagious omicron that made “original COVID” seem pretty tame. 

What we know today (and it seems like new research on this virus emerges every few hours) is this: 

  • COVID definitely impacts our kids. The disease was among the top 10 causes of death among American children in 2021. In fact, the number of children in the U.S. who died from COVID-related causes in 2021 alone is higher than the number of U.S. children killed by the flu in the past five years combined. And, contrary to what vaccine skeptics and those who are overly eager to “return to normal” want us to believe, many of these children were in perfect health prior to their COVID infection. Just this week, a father in Orange County, California, spoke out about the devastating death of his 17-year-old daughter who was described as “having no preexisting health issues.” The teen’s family had begged her to get vaccinated against COVID-19, but the girl, “like most teenagers, felt indestructible,” her father told a Los Angeles CBS News affiliate this week. 
  • SARS-CoV-2 is airborne and can live in the air for up to 3 hours. Research shows that masking — especially masking with high-quality masks like N95s, KN95s and KF94s in the face of an extremely contagious variant like omicron and the “stealth omicron” version currently spreading across the U.S. — does indeed slow the virus’ spread. A large-scale, randomized study by Stanford Medicine and Yale University researchers released pre-omicron (in September 2021) concluded that “wearing a surgical mask over the mouth and nose is an effective way to reduce the occurrence of COVID-19 in community settings.” 
  • The omicron variant changed the game for everyone counting on their naturally acquired immunity from a previous COVID infection to protect them from another round with this deadly virus. Researchers have shown omicron is able to evade antibodies produced by previous COVID infections and has re-infected at least 650,000 people in England. 
  • Having COVID is not at all “like having a bad cold,” despite the fact that the acute phase of COVID shares symptoms with colds and flus. The more researchers delve into SARS-CoV-2, the more they have realized that this isn’t some normal respiratory virus that makes us feel miserable for a few days and then goes away. Many researchers now believe COVID is a vascular — not respiratory — disease that has the ability to attack our circulatory and vascular systems, causing blood clots and increasing our risk of strokes and heart attacks. As one professor from the University of San Diego recently told EuroNews: “A lot of people think of it as a respiratory disease, but it’s really a vascular disease. That could explain why some people have strokes, and why some people have issues in other parts of the body. The commonality between them is that they all have vascular underpinnings.”
  • “Long COVID” is a real thing and it will likely have devastating impacts on our society if we continue to lift mitigations and allow SARS-CoV-2 to rip through our communities. We know COVID is causing lingering health issues for as many as 50 percent of those who are infected. We also know having COVID puts us at greater risk of having a heart attack or stroke. A huge study of more than 150,000 U.S. veterans recently showed “even a mild case of COVID-19 can increase a person’s risk of cardiovascular problems for at least one year after diagnosis.” The risk was found in all ages as well as in people who lacked pre-existing conditions like obesity or diabetes. As the Veterans Affairs St. Louis Health Care System’s chief of research and development put it: “It doesn’t matter if you are young or old, it doesn’t matter if you smoked, or you didn’t — the risk was there.” 

We are just now beginning to understand the long-term impacts of this illness. One recent study showed as many as 1.6 million Americans are now unable to work thanks to chronic “long COVID” health issues.  

The Brookings Institution fellow who conducted the research was blown away by her findings that over one million U.S. workers were basically incapacitated by post-COVID symptoms like exhaustion, memory loss, heart palpitations and “brain fog.”
“It was so much bigger than I thought it would be,” the fellow told CBS News earlier this month. “Then it was like, ‘Why is no one talking about this?’ … I don’t believe we will take steps to deal with this crisis until we understand the full economic burden. Understanding the economic burden of long COVID is what is most likely to move the needle in getting people to take this seriously.”

Public officials who seem to be giving in to political pressures from groups that have called for the premature end of COVID mitigations throughout the entire pandemic should, instead, hold tight to the mitigations that prevent widespread infections until our community transmission numbers are well into the “low” threshold set by public health experts in 2021: No more than 10 cases per 100,000 people or a test positivity rate of less than 5 percent. In Clark County, we have a long way to go. According to the Centers for Disease Control’s metrics, as of Feb. 16, our local transmission rate was “high” with 577.38 per 100,000, with 81 new hospital admissions and 10 deaths in the last week. 

Until those numbers take a substantial nosedive and enter the “low” zone, our elected city, county and school officials have a duty to continue all mitigations — including masking — that protect our youngest children and most vulnerable community members from severe disease and protect all of us from COVID’s long-term impacts.