In the old gold-mining town of Republic, out in northeastern Washington, they’ve tried it all to get people to vaccinate for the coronavirus. From running radio spots to mailing reminders in utility bills to outreach in the churches.
It’s now down to pleading.
“We are better than what we have demonstrated so far,” exhorted Rob Slagle, the town’s retired pharmacist and a volunteer firefighter, in an open letter to the timber-country town of 1,000.
“Please ignore the white noise that comes from social media and spreads in an instant with just a mouse click,” he wrote. “Please get vaccinated, and if your own beliefs lead you away from vaccination, then mask up … we cannot escape the reality of this disease.”
What’s happening in Republic is like a cautionary saga during what are supposed to be the last days of the pandemic. After mostly avoiding the disease for more than a year, the town suddenly has “joined the rest of COVID nation,” as Slagle put it.
A poker night three weeks ago at the local Eagles lodge, followed by a karaoke singalong the next night, was all it took. Everyone at the poker tables caught COVID-19, and now the disease is coursing through Ferry County — a spot of about 8,000 where only 22% had, as of this week, started the vaccination process.
The outbreak shut down some government offices and a slew of businesses. More than 100 people have tested positive, and hospitalizations in the region have nearly doubled.
“The vast majority had some kind of exposure to that event, either by attendance, or by a secondary exposure,” the county health administrator, Matt Schanz, said.
Ferry County’s 14-day COVID rate rose nearly 20-fold in two weeks, from about 60 per 100,000 on April 7 to more than 1,100 per 100,000 this past week. The county ranked, on Friday, as the fifth-worst hot spot in the United States.
Schanz, who also oversees Stevens and Pend Oreille counties in northeastern Washington, was asked what it’s going to take for people there to get a vaccine.
“Have we reached that point of saturation?” Schanz wondered to The Associated Press, even though all three counties rank near the bottom for the share of people getting a first shot, at about 20%. Vaccine resistance is prevalent, he said, because a lot of people there say “‘Jeez, I don’t want to be a government experiment.’”
There’s that g-word — government. This is a main reason, I suspect, that we are going to struggle more than expected to reach herd immunity, as well as suffer through superspreader outbreaks like this one far more than necessary before this pandemic runs its course.
There are large swaths of the state that simply don’t trust government. It’s not just that they’re skeptical whether government can perform (because who isn’t). This goes deeper and is more visceral, back decades to when President Ronald Reagan said that the nine scariest words are “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” Donald Trump’s presidency simply pulverized whatever lingering faith remained that government might, on occasion, be a help, rather than a malignant, negative force.
I charted the vaccination rates of the counties in our state versus the percentage vote in each county for President Joe Biden in the 2020 election. I figure the Biden vote is a sort of proxy for the percentage of people who still think government can help solve problems. That was Biden’s main pitch, after all — that government isn’t the enemy.
The chart makes it pretty clear: The deep-red counties are all at the bottom in vaccination, while the deep-blue counties are mostly at the top. The mixed counties, where neither candidate won by more than 10 points or so, are clustered mostly in the middle.
This political vaccine divide seems to be accelerating since I first mentioned it a month ago. In Seattle the first-shot vaccination rate has now gone past 60%, according to the mayor’s office. Some have suggested the divide may be due to red-voting areas of the state being more rural. But Jefferson County, on the Olympic Peninsula, and San Juan County, which both have about 60% of their residents with at least one shot as well, hardly qualify as urban.
The theory is that in rural areas the population is more spread out and so maybe COVID-19 seems more distant to them. But the superspreader in Republic — town motto: “not on the way to anywhere but here” — unfortunately shows how the disease can rip through even the remotest parts of the state.
At its most core level, government is supposed to be there for three big things: defending the country from attack, building infrastructure and responding to natural disasters — such as a pandemic. But something in that compact has frayed so badly, for a big share of the citizenry, to the point that it’s now shredded.
Maybe the sudden surge of COVID-19 in Ferry County will lead to a countersurge in red-county vaccinations. I hope so. But the chart of how vaccines track with political polarization shows this is an entrenched, gut-level deal.
We’re on the verge of ending this pandemic. But “I don’t want to be a government experiment” is carrying the day in large parts of the state.
And so we’re probably going to be at this for longer than we hoped, as a natural experiment in disease spread runs its course.