Here we go again.
Masks are supposed to go back on. Some businesses are being forced to close. Hospitals, at least in some parts of the state, have begun to warn about jammed emergency rooms.
“It’s déjà vu all over again,” said Reza Kaleel, a hospital executive in the Tri-Cities — right now the state’s hottest COVID hot spot. A delta variant outbreak there has caused a disheartening “fifth wave,” filling the local ICU this past week to the point that patients had to be medevaced out of town.
“The hardest thing for us to see, as health professionals, is that this is entirely preventable,” Kaleel said.
This past month when I wrote that “Washington had its chance to stomp the coronavirus, but we blew it,” a lot of readers objected.
Some didn’t like the royal “we.”
“ ‘We’ didn’t blow it,” a doctor from Snohomish wrote in. “Other areas of the state have done very well, with high vaccination rates and low infection rates. It’s an amazing success story, actually.”
Others wrote that they were done with the idea of “we.”
“I’m vaxxed so I guess I don’t worry about it anymore,” one wrote. “If you had the chance to get vaccinated and didn’t take it, and then you end up in the hospital, that’s on you.”
Others felt it’s all fundamentally nobody’s business (or at least none of mine).
“Since when were you anointed to rule over Eastern Washington?” wrote a man who insisted he had picked up my column only because he was passing the time at a store waiting for his wife. “Vaccinations here in Walla Walla or anywhere in this state are really none of your business.”
Well let’s check in on Walla Walla, shall we? Since then, the COVID case rate has shot up by another 37% (it was already one of the highest on the West Coast). This past week, a hospital in town asked people not to come to the emergency room unless they are having “a heart attack, stroke, trouble breathing, severe bone breaks, etc.”
“There is a higher likelihood of being air transferred to another facility, particularly for an intensive care bed,” the health director warned.
This sure sounds like somebody’s business. What’s happening now in this infuriating COVID sequel — the mask redux, bars closing due to mini-outbreaks, businesses delaying their returns to offices — is exactly what I meant when I said “we” had blown it. This societywide failure to contain the pandemic is going to touch you one way or another, even if you are vaccinated so that the disease itself may not.
At a briefing in the Tri-Cities, doctors were reduced to morosely begging their community to get vaccinated — to no apparent avail. After all this time and effort, Benton County is hovering at 47% of the eligible population vaccinated, while Franklin County has only 40%.
“There’s this lack of trust in science and our health care experts — it’s something I haven’t seen in my career before,” said Dr. Kevin Pieper of Kadlec Medical Center in Richland, where COVID hospitalizations have surged fourfold since June and are now back to the peak from last winter.
Kaleel, the administrator, said the hospital staff is demoralized by the “unending procession” of COVID waves and lockdowns. He’s now worried he won’t be able to recruit new doctors or nurses to “a community that continues to have a very low vaccination rate, knowing what they’re going to have to contend with here.”
The biggest concern, he said, is the unvaccinated population may percolate “mutations of the virus beyond this delta variant that may prove to be more resistant to the vaccines, and keep us all in this cycle.”
This was the most depressing briefing I’ve attended in the pandemic yet. They kept repeating how pointless and easily preventable it all is.
So what are we going to do now — now that we blew our chance to stomp the pandemic?
The other day a KING 5 news anchor, Jake Whittenberg, asked: “Serious question … Where’s the effort to make the unvaccinated feel more comfortable about getting the shot, rather than just making them feel guilty?” Asked what people are objecting to, he said: “They’re uncomfortable with government telling them what to do.”
A good debate followed, but here’s the thing: Up till now, government hasn’t told anybody what to do — yet. They’ve made the shots free and easy to get. They dangled beer, lottery drawings, even free topsoil(!). They begged. On Thursday President Biden backed the once radical idea of paying people to get vaxxed.
The one thing they haven’t done is make anybody do anything.
That’s where I suspect we’re headed. Persuasion hasn’t worked. Hospitalization and death don’t seem to move the needle. The only thing left to try is to raise the costs and hassle of staying unvaccinated (for those who can medically take the vaccines, of course).
It’s why businesses increasingly are saying: Get vaxxed or you can’t work (there’s usually an out where you can take regular coronavirus tests instead). Or, as at some Seattle businesses, “no vaccine, no service.”
“I have a relative who won’t get vaccinated, but if you told her she couldn’t go to Costco, she’d be at CVS that same day with her sleeve rolled up,” one reader wrote me.
Exactly. It’s the American version of what they did in France, where you now have to show a “vaccine passport” to go to a Parisian cafe.
I’m not a fan of forced vaccination. Requiring vaccination to do certain things though, that’s a step shy of a hard mandate (especially if you can show a negative test as an alternative). But it’s a ratcheting up of pressure, which now seems sadly needed to halt the making of still more bad COVID sequels (sure to come this fall: Part VI, The Coviding).
As the weary doctors in the Tri-Cities testified the other day, we could have done this the easy way. But “we” chose not to — by which I mean, enough of us to rope in all of us. So the hard way it’s going to be.
The opinions expressed in reader comments are those of the author only and do not reflect the opinions of The Seattle Times.