The tale of two cities told in a national magazine this week was summed up well in the headline: “Seattle’s leaders let scientists take the lead. New York’s did not.”
The article, in The New Yorker, heaped praise on our region’s spotlight-loving politicians and corporate leaders for doing an unusual thing when the coronavirus outbreak first hit two months ago. They got out of the way.
The coherent, science-based messaging that resulted may explain why our per capita death rate from COVID-19 is, so far, one-tenth that of New York’s.
King County Executive Dow Constantine recalled it in a bucolic-sounding quote: “Everyone, Republicans and Democrats, came together behind one message and agreed to let the scientists take the lead.”
It rings pretty true to the spirit of what was going on here back in February and early March. But alas, those halcyon days definitely are over.
Increasingly, local Republicans seem to be concluding that, science be damned, it’s time we man up and let the virus run.
It’s “not necessarily a bad thing” for more people to be exposed to the virus, Washington state Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, told The Columbian newspaper this week. “It will speed our path, frankly, toward herd immunity.”
This notion of easing up and possibly letting society get the virus — sort of a “chickenpox party” for the state, which scientists say could lead to thousands more deaths — was memorialized Monday by the entire state Senate GOP caucus in a tweet that got mocked so much for callousness it was later deleted.
“Who is the COVID virus killing in WA state?” the GOP senators asked. “53% are 80 or older. Let’s protect our older neighbors at home and look at different rules for others.”
Then there’s this persistent refrain of “it’s not that big of a deal, it’s like the flu,” pushed nationally by Trumpy voices such as Medal of Freedom winner Rush Limbaugh. Around here, state Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, fits that bill. He recently downplayed COVID-19 on Facebook by noting it has felled only about .01 percent of the state’s population.
“Some people freak out when you call it ‘Covid 19 Flu,’ so I will go with illness,” he said.
Well, people freak out at that because it isn’t the flu (it’s a completely different virus). And, because it has already killed eight times more people here than the entire seven-month-long 2019-2020 flu season.
That’s right — there have been 96 confirmed flu deaths in Washington state since October, according to the most recent weekly state flu bulletin. As of Tuesday, the state has reported 786 COVID-19 deaths. Both these numbers are considered under counts that likely will be revised upward. The flu season has tapered off to the point there were zero confirmed new cases last week.
Nationally, COVID-19 killed more people in a month than the flu did the entire year. COVID-19 is the leading cause of death right now in America. Tuesday was the fifth deadliest day of the pandemic, and the ninth day this month the nation saw more than 2,000 coronavirus deaths — an extreme daily toll that never happens with the seasonal flu. And that’s after all the lockdowns and social distancing.
The people who guessed it was like the flu in February, which includes the president, weren’t listening to the scientists, and turned out to be wrong. But those doing it now are just denying the reality of the past month, for propaganda or political purposes.
This isn’t a hypothetical debate about modeling or forecasts anymore — the deaths have happened right here in our communities. I personally knew two people who were killed by COVID-19, and a third whose mother died from it (all three were below age 80, by the way.) This bizarre partisan effort to minimize the disease makes it feel like these lives count for a little less.
Tuesday the state health officer, Kathy Lofy, said that even on lockdown we continue to see 150 to 300 new cases daily — “a fairly high disease burden,” even as hospitalizations and deaths have declined. The truth is we don’t know whether it may be starting to peter out or, perversely, whether we’ve been so good at social distancing that it’s got miles left to run.
The great news is that despite being an early epicenter, Washington today ranks relatively low among states in per capita deaths, at about 11 per 100,000 population. Just increasing to the national average of 18 would mean 520 more deaths. Jumping to the extreme of New York’s rate would catastrophically mean nearly 8,000 more dead in our state.
That Seattle listened to the scientists two months ago is a great story, and may have been a major life-saver. Yes, everybody’s eager to get back to normal life and work. But don’t turn the plot over now to salesmen offering quick fixes or fake cures.