Anyone who's watched traditional zombie movies knows it's never really the zombies themselves that kill people. Sure, the relentless but slow-moving and brainless corpses are the mechanism of death, but it's really humans' selfishness, panic, stupidity and conflict that always causes them to leave positions of relative safety to imperil themselves and their loved ones.
COVID-19 is our zombie apocalypse and that's what makes this moment so maddening. After all, it's not as though the rest of the developed world has some secret formula it's withholding from the United States that has allowed country after country to gain control of the disease without the widespread infection and death we're seeing here. No, what they have is leadership, fortitude, a willingness to sacrifice for the collective good and a belief in science. We don't, but that's no secret.
We could, of course, fill this column with a laundry list of our federal failings, from the lack of a cohesive strategy and testing shortages to a president who questions established science and mocks bona fide health experts. But those problems are largely beyond our control, while what's happening in Humboldt County is not.
When the Humboldt County Joint Information Center reported a single-day record of 10 new confirmed cases on Aug. 5, it was yet another sign that local officials' sober warnings were going unheeded, even on the heels of July's 100 new infections, nearly doubling our caseload as the rest of California spiraled out of control. Then came Aug. 6, when 25 more local cases were confirmed. By the time the Journal went to press with this issue Aug. 11, Humboldt County had already recorded 60 cases for the month.
And it's no mystery what's driving the new cases; Humboldt County Health Officer Teresa Frankovich and Sheriff William Honsal have been telling us for weeks that it's largely the result of travel and multi-household gatherings.
People travel outside the area to visit family or vacation, and bring the virus home with, only for it to quickly spread though their households and — sometimes — their workplaces, too. Other people are welcoming visitors from outside the county into their homes, causing the same pattern to unfold. Then there are those who simply refuse to abide county and state prohibitions against social gatherings and mix households for dinner parties, barbecues and other events, dramatically increasing the virus' potential to jump from one household to another, creating new clusters of infection and exponential growth. That, in a nutshell, is how we went from 32 cases in June, to 100 in July to 60 through the first 11 days of August.
For some it may be tempting to look back at Aug. 6 and point to those 25 cases as the moment the tide turned, the day we lost the pandemic. But the truth is we — yes, even us here tucked behind the Redwood Curtain — have been losing this pandemic for weeks now, one decision at a time: the refusal to cancel that trip to meet friends in Lake Tahoe for the weekend; the inability to tell Mom or Grandpa they can't come visit for the weekend; the sense of exceptionalism that says it's fine to have some friends over for dinner even as your neighbors continue sacrificing for your — and everyone else's — safety. Maybe as a state we lost this pandemic when the government gave everyone a false sense of security by opening bars, restaurants and movie theaters — a decision that arguably put a handful of weeks of revelry over safely getting our children back in school where they belong.
And it's important to remember this isn't close to over — it's likely just beginning. Today's case numbers are the result of decisions made a week or two ago, just as today's decisions dictate what public health will report a week or two from now. Hospitalizations trail a week or two behind reported case spikes, with intensive care and death numbers trailing behind those. Public Health reported two new hospitalizations Aug. 10. And as our cases continue to surge, flu and cold season lurk around the corner, promising to make COVID-19 cases harder to find, isolate and control, while also encroaching on our limited local healthcare capacity, as they do every year.
The good news is we have all the answers we need to keep the zombies at bay. We can stay home (or outdoors and physically distanced) whenever possible, cancel all nonessential travel and opt for video conferences and phone calls to keep up with friends and family, forgoing in-person get-togethers.
Or we can keep doing what we're doing, choosing instant personal gratification over the collective good, thinking we are somehow exempt from the sacrifice this moment in history demands or that we know better than the rest of the developed world, even as our hospitals bulge and our morgues overflow and our schools remain empty.
The zombies are out there but the choice is ours.