My last column touched on some good news — about how the Seattle area has excelled at trying to bring the pandemic to an end.
Now some bad news: The vaccine divide in this state, already a chasm, is incredibly only getting wider.
No amount of lotto-prize giveaways or dispatching of mobile-shot vans seems to be persuading large swaths of the state to get the coronavirus vaccine. Since I last wrote about the geographic and political vaccine divide, six weeks ago, the gap between the vaxxed and unvaxxed parts of the state has only grown.
Since late April, the divide between the most vaccinated place in our state, San Juan County, and the least, Garfield County in southeast Washington, has grown by 12 percentage points. That’s based on the percentage of the total population that has gotten at least one shot (74% of San Juan County has done it, while only 26% of Garfield has — a 48% gap).
The top five counties for vaccination rate (in order: San Juan, Jefferson, King, Whatcom and Clallam, all in western Washington) have increased the shares of their residents getting vaxxed by 12% in the past six weeks. The bottom five counties have increased by only 5% (these are Garfield, Stevens, Pend Oreille, Asotin and Skamania counties).
So despite all the efforts to close it, the gap continues to widen. The state health secretary, Umair Shah, keeps saying he doesn’t want to see a “tale of two societies” in our state. But that Dickensian plot seems like it may be set.
There is one place that defied it, for a moment anyway. It’s unfortunately a morality tale of its own. It shows what it takes to move the needle on this issue. And also how fleeting, such as after a mass shooting, our capacity for action and change really is.
Two months ago, the old gold-mining town of Republic, about 100 miles northwest of Spokane in Ferry County, suffered a superspreader outbreak of COVID-19.
After poker night at the local Eagles lodge, which health officials say “patient zero” attended, the disease took off in the town of 1,000 — eventually infecting 10% or more of the residents there and overwhelming the hospital.
By the time the outbreak slowed, 737 people had been tested and 147 were positive. The 25-bed local clinic was full, and a dozen patients were medevaced to hospitals in Wenatchee and Spokane. It led to some business closures as well as quarantines at two area schools — “this includes most of the high school baseball team, all of the 5th grade class, and all except one student in 8th grade,” one announcement noted, for the adjacent town of Curlew.
Four people had died, as of Tuesday.
The problem was easy to spot: At the time of the poker night, only 18% of the county had even gotten one shot. It seemed so remote that people let down their guards about gathering. The combination made them a sitting duck.
“People have to get vaccinated and people have to pay heed to these strategies, and that’s definitely challenging in our communities right now,” the local health administrator, Matt Schanz, told The Spokesman-Review.
What happened next though is that vaccinations briefly surged in Republic and surrounding areas. In the two months after the outbreak, vaccinations doubled in Ferry County, from 18% getting at least one shot to 36%. That’s a bigger percentage increase during that time than in all but one other county in the state — vaccine star San Juan, which went up about 20 percentage points.
It all then slowed, however, seemingly stalling out at about 42% of Ferry County’s adult population getting a shot (measured by ages 16 and up).
“Enough is enough!” the hospital district in Republic said in a statement, imploring people that the outbreak ought to be all the impetus they need to now get the shots.
But still more than half the adults in Ferry County remain unmoved, so far, to do so. Maybe they figure natural herd immunity is on the way regardless?
I mentioned mass shootings up above, because the crisis psychology here feels similar. We grieve, we offer thoughts and prayers, we rally against the peril for a time, but then within a few weeks we fall back into the same patterns.
COVID-19 has proved to be 15 times more deadly than gun violence in the United States and is arguably an easier problem to solve. Just have to get the shots. But, as with the mass shootings, it feels like it may not be too much death to really move large sections of the populace to action.
If we could all get a vaccine to stop the mass shootings, would we do it?
Maybe, especially if your own town had just been shot up. But the real-time experiment of the pandemic suggests the answer is that many of us probably wouldn’t bother.