If you simply look at COVID-19 as a stress test, there's no denying that Humboldt County, as a community, is failing.

It's not just the numbers, which are awful. After all, the county confirmed more COVID-19 cases in August than it did in its two previous record months — the post holiday surge of December and January — combined. In fact, August — which fell some three and a half months after the entirety of the county's adult population became vaccine eligible — accounted for 28 percent of the cases, 30 percent of the hospitalizations and 29 percent of the deaths that Humboldt has recorded over the entirety of the 18-month pandemic. All those numbers represent people right here in our community, people we live and work with, people we know.

Perhaps not unpredictably, our systems are flailing under the stress. Public Health has given up contact tracing efforts for large swaths of cases deemed low-risk, realizing it doesn't have the bodies to keep up. In many cases, there are simply too many potential COVID exposures and contacts to effectively track the spread of disease. Meanwhile, St. Joseph Hospital, our primary center for COVID-19 care, is overwhelmed with hospitalizations and ICU patients, seemingly setting new records daily. Individual staffers are overwhelmed, too, by preventable death and debilitating illness, prompting some to walk off the job while others remain stressed and broken, feeling understandably angry at and deserted by the community they've dedicated themselves to taking care of. We're failing them.

Amid this backdrop of disease and death, most of our 16,000 school-age children also returned to their classrooms last month, where teachers who'd entered the summer full of hope that a quasi-normal year lay ahead now find themselves teaching in person as the virus spreads at rates ten-fold worse than those that shuttered schools last year. They're swallowing real fears of exposure for themselves and their families in order to bridge the learning gap and provide a safe space for the kids who need them most. We're failing them, too.

And as the ICU at St. Joseph Hospital brimmed to capacity this past weekend, with a nursing staff waiting anxiously to see if state-deployed reinforcements would arrive, thousands of our neighbors descended on the Humboldt County Fair Grounds to revel unmasked, as others spilled into bars, movie theaters, music venues and friends' homes, where their aerosols mingled and infections spread.

Make no mistake: For a community that prides itself on resiliency and self-reliance, this is a sad moment.

It's not just that a year and a half into this pandemic some of us still don't understand how our actions have impacts that reverberate, it's also that the stress of this pandemic is tearing us apart.

We see it on social media and hear it in conversation. One extreme says, "I'm healthy and strong. Let the vulnerable shelter in place and isolate; I'm going to live my life," or responds to another death by asking about age and comorbidities, hunting for a way to minimize the impact. The other says, "I have no sympathy for unvaccinated people filling up the hospitals, no pity for the dead. They made their choices."

What have we become? The truth is we're all experiencing what a surgeon at St. Joseph Hospital described as a collective, slow-moving mass casualty event. To varying degrees, we've all witnessed death and debilitating illness and financial hardship and loss, and we know there will be more. There will also be sadness, anger and regret spilling in all directions.

As a community, we stand at the precipice. Our hospital is overwhelmed, its staff broken. If we continue apace, we will see the kind of horrors play out locally that we've only read about elsewhere: panels deciding which patients get life-saving oxygen and which don't, providers forced to witness levels of death and loss from which they won't mentally recover, patients dying alone in makeshift ICU rooms as others are simply left to gasp their last breaths at home. It's a slow-motion disaster we've engineered by ignoring public health recommendations, refusing to accept science in favor of wild speculation and turning away from a free, safe and effective vaccine.

It doesn't need to be like this. We collectively have all the tools we need to flatten this curve, lessen the spread of disease in our community and give our healthcare workers a sliver of respite. But to do that, we all need to understand that our choices matter. All of us, all of them.

The most important choice each of us can make is to get vaccinated, as it is proving incredibly effective at preventing severe illness and death, keeping people out of the hospital. But vaccinated or not, we also need to stay home whenever possible, limiting outings and masking up when we do go out, while practicing physical distancing and refraining from gathering with people outside our households.

We honestly don't know how we as a community recover from the collective trauma and divisions of this pandemic but we'd like as many of us as possible around to figure it out. More than ever, our neighbors' lives — whether jeopardized by COVID or a car crash — hinge on each of us making the right choices.


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