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As Humboldt County passed the somber anniversary of its first COVID-19 death on May 17 — marking a year that saw at least 42 local residents die with the disease — we sat awash in a swirl of emotions.

First, there's the incalculable loss. This was felt most acutely as we talked to the friends and family of those who've died with COVID locally for this week's cover story, the pain and sadness still so fresh in many voices as they talked about the voids left by death and the loneliness of not being able to hold a loved one's hand as they passed from this world to whatever's next. But this pandemic has taken more than lives, as too many of us have also lost livelihoods and health, a sense of security and moments that once seemed promised.

Then, there's the tremendous sense of hope that only seems to grow as more vaccine data emerges. Speaking to the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors on May 18, Health Officer Ian Hoffman referenced state data showing that just 0.026 percent of fully vaccinated residents in California — 2.6 in 10,000 — have later tested positive for COVID-19.

"The vaccine prevents severe disease, hospitalization and death, and it's extraordinarily good at that," he said. "And it's pretty darn good at preventing even minor symptoms, as well."

And emboldened by similar data showing the efficacy of vaccinations in not just preventing infection but also spread of the virus, national and state officials have begun lifting restrictions. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now says it's safe for fully vaccinated people to take off their masks and forgo physical distancing, while California plans to lift just about all COVID restrictions next month. This is all cause for celebration, at least among the almost 50,000 fully vaccinated Humboldt County residents.

Unfortunately, as study after study seems to confirm these vaccines offer a glittering path out of this pandemic, too few are taking it, as clinic appointments continue to go unfilled and local case numbers continue to surge.

As this issue of the Journal went to press May 18, the county had already confirmed more than 300 new cases of the virus this month, with case and positivity rates far, far higher than the rest of the state. And it's clear no one is going to step in to pull an emergency break, shuttering businesses, banning gatherings or imposing any other restrictions. After all, the underlying goal of the restrictions was never to keep people from being infected, only to keep hospitals from becoming overrun by waves of critically ill patients.

So as we look back this week on the more than 40 people this virus has taken from Humboldt County while celebrating a future that looks newly bright, we do so knowing suffering will continue and more people will likely die. That's the reality of this moment.

What's also clear is that each of us now has a choice that wasn't afforded the vast majority of those we've lost to this disease. We can choose to get a vaccine that's proven not only safe, but incredibly effective at preventing both serious illness and passing the virus on to someone else. It's an individual choice with the power to limit the pain and suffering and loss of life that's yet to come.

If you're not yet vaccinated, we encourage you to read this week's cover story and reflect on what we as a county have lost over the past year and what's at stake for us all in in your personal health decision. Talk to your healthcare provider. If you have questions, seek out answers from reliable sources. Vaccine abundance is an incalculable privilege still absent in much of the world.

Please honor those we have lost by using that privilege to make Humboldt County a safer place for all, and to spare your loved ones and neighbors the grief and loss that anchor every line in this week's cover story.

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill (she/her) is the Journal's arts and features editor and fully vaccinated. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or Jennifer@northcoastjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.

Thadeus Greenson (he/him) is the Journal's news editor and fully vaccinated. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or thad@northcoastjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.

Kimberly Wear (she/her) is the Journal's digital editor and fully vaccinated. Reach her at 442-1400 extension, 323, or kim@northcoastjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @Kimberly_Wear.

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