By now, most have heard the ominous line from a leaked internal document of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control warning about the highly contagious Delta variant of COVID-19: "The war has changed."
A year ago, in the last week of July of 2020, Humboldt County recorded 28 new cases with a test-positivity rate of 2.6 percent, with a masking mandate firmly in place. Health orders shuttered entire sectors of the economy and restricted capacity in others, as school districts weighed bringing students back to classrooms. We watched the horizon with hope for an effective, safe vaccine.
Fast forward to last week: Humboldt County confirmed 217 new COVID-19 cases with a test-positivity rate of 10.6 percent in one of the worst weeks of virus spread since the pandemic began. Meanwhile, the economy is fully reopened, if understaffed, with indoor dining and movie theaters operating unrestricted, and last year's mask mandate replaced by a recommendation. And while science has delivered — giving us not one but three vaccines proven incredibly effective at preventing serious illness and death — our population has been slow to embrace it, with about a third of local eligible residents having not yet received a shot. (Another 12 percent of us — those under the age of 12 — are not yet eligible to be vaccinated.)
Enter the Delta variant. Health officials warn it's like COVID on steroids — twice as infectious and, a growing body of evidence indicates, resulting in more severe illness. Emerging data also suggests Delta is more likely to infect the fully vaccinated, though so-called breakthrough cases remain rare and resulting severe illness is even rarer.
The war, quite clearly, has changed.
This was apparent when the county announced July 29 that it would mandate facial coverings in county facilities the following morning. The move was not surprising — Humboldt County has among the worst case numbers in the state, bad enough to trigger the CDC's universal masking recommendation. The county could have imposed a masking mandate for all in all public spaces. There's a strong argument that would have been prudent. But the county's explanation was telling: "The recent surge in cases in Humboldt County poses a real threat not only to our community, but also to the county's own ability to provide vital services."
The mask-mandate in county facilities is to protect their staff and the county's ability to function. This is the world we're left to navigate — each of us, as businesses, institutions, organizations, employees, families and individuals, making our own risk calculations while factoring in that some of us will continue to get sick and die, particularly the unvaccinated. And we come to grips with this amid the sobering realization that we'll likely be living with COVID-19 for a long time. For many of us, that comes with anger and regret and disappointment.
To call this surge in infections "a pandemic of the unvaccinated" feels wrong. Yes, data indicates those of us who are fully vaccinated are far less likely to need an oxygen tank or to die alone in an ICU, but we all feel the impacts of this pandemic — and the choices of our neighbors who choose not to vaccinate. We'll worry about sending our young, unvaccinated kids to school or whether a case cluster will shutter our business. We'll know even a mild case of the virus could leave us behind on rent or cost us a job. We'll long for a true normal — practical and psychological — that's out of reach. All while experiencing the collective trauma of preventable illness and death week after week after week.
Of course, it doesn't have to be this way. As has always been the case, each of us has some power to prevent spread of this virus — even its hopped-up Delta variant — but it takes all of us.
Please, no matter your politics or personal risk calculations, do all you can. Talk to your healthcare provider about the vaccines. If you choose not to get vaccinated, recognize your neighbors are counting on you to follow health and safety protocols proven to prevent spread: masking in public, not mixing households, refraining from travel, distancing. You cannot responsibly engage in the return to the public life vaccination can bring us without vaccinating yourself. Even in terms of of self preservation, if you go into restaurants and gatherings unmasked and unvaccinated, there will be no herd immunity to protect you or those your infection will put in greater danger. Weigh your choices carefully.
This war has changed but we still — each of us and all of us — have the power to prevent it from lasting forever.