As this edition of the Journal went to press, winter had not yet officially begun. And we find that metaphorically significant.
The weather has turned cold and wet as our county's COVID-19 caseload continues to spike dramatically, with Humboldt County having confirmed 423 new infections through the first 15 days of December and four new COVID-related deaths over the span of six days. Meanwhile, Christmas and New Year's approach, and the coldest days of winter await. And despite the glimmer of hope provided by the Dec. 14 delivery of the first batch of vaccines to the North Coast, there won't be enough to provide any widespread relief for some months at least.
Make no mistake, things seem poised to continue to get worse long before they get better.
To the assortment of healthcare providers on the frontlines of treating COVID-19 patients in Humboldt County the Journal spoke with this week, that's a terrifying, deflating thing to contemplate. They're already exhausted and weary, having spent months developing the skills and knowledge, and acquiring the equipment needed to treat this disease while navigating the myriad of concerns the pandemic has brought and, in some cases, facing anxieties about their personal safety.
Our hospitals are already stretched thin. Kristen Beddow, the charge nurse in Humboldt County's largest emergency room at St. Joseph Hospital, told us her unit is already seeing more critical patients than anyone on staff has ever seen. Every day. Most of these aren't COVID-19 patients. Some are people who put off preventative care appointments or a trip to the ER for months out of fear of catching COVID-19. Others are have fallen through the cracks of social isolation or are suffering acute emotional disturbances. But they are folks in need of critical, emergency care.
And by the looks of it, there's an influx of COVID-19 patients on the way to join them. (Remember, the numbers indicate 12 percent of COVID-19 patients will need to be hospitalized within 14 days of their diagnosis.) So this all looks rather daunting for a healthcare system that sometimes saw its intensive care units filled to capacity before a pandemic was something most of us thought about.
The good news is that it's in our collective power to control this pandemic. Of course, you'd be forgiven for feeling that's cold comfort, because it's always been in our collective power to hold the worst of this disease at bay and we simply haven't been up to the task.
But if we're going to stave off a truly dark winter — the kind that will bring the very grim realities we've seen play out elsewhere, with health systems overwhelmed and savable lives lost, into our hospitals' halls — we must redouble and expand our collective efforts. We don't need to wait for a state stay-at-home order to stay at home whenever possible. Nor do we need any more guidance or directives to know that we need to put on a mask when out in public and stop gathering with people outside our households. This simply isn't rocket science, it just demands a sense of community and a willingness for continued sacrifice, a sense that maybe our neighbors' collective lives and health matter more than our immediate comforts.
We're not naïve. We know some among us who don't see the virus as a threat to their personal safety, so they don't think they should change their behavior. Let the vulnerable isolate and let the rest of us live, they say. Of course, as the recent outbreak at Eureka's Granada skilled nursing facility and the deaths of four residents there attest, that's a fallacy, as the more disease circulates in the community — even among those who may be young and healthy and feel invincible — the more likely it is to find its way to those more vulnerable to critical outcomes.
If you read this week's cover story, you'll hear the voices of a handful of very passionate, caring people who have dedicated their professional lives to taking care of us at our most vulnerable moments, whether that be after a car crash or a heart attack. It's their calling and they say they are grateful to do it. But they didn't sign up for this. They didn't envision risking their personal safety to care for a seemingly endless flow of critically ill COVID-19 patients because their neighbors refused to forgo a dinner party or a trip out of town.
The hard truth is that whatever you decide, these providers will be there for you if you should fall ill, with your blood-oxygen levels plummeting or your organs failing. If they can, they will hold your hand when the end draws near or put your family on speakerphone to say goodbye. They have pledged to answer that call.
What remains to be seen is if the rest of us will answer ours.
's news editor. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.