By The Herald Editorial Board
Maybe we can get our personal and public responses to covid right this time; at least with less splitting of communities into separate camps of those defending personal liberties to the death and those working to protect lives and public health.
After a long-deserved break this summer from most covid concerns — including the federal government’s declaration in May that ended the public health emergency for covid-19 — recent news has brought renewed attention to the virus and response to it, including reports and expectations of increases in cases during the fall and winter months.
Locally, with case counts and other numbers remaining in low ranges, Snohomish County Health Officer James Lewis, last week cited 41 cases of covid per 100,000 people, a rate that was more than double what it was earlier in August. Still, the county’s numbers remain well in the “low” range for number of hospitalizations per 100,000 population at 2.5.
Public health eyes, then, are still watching the numbers, but “we’re not seeing any huge alarms,” Lewis said during the county health board’s meeting.
Nationwide, covid appears to be transitioning from its pandemic status — an unhindered spread of an infectious disease — to “endemic,” meaning infections are not growing exponentially and health care systems are not overwhelmed, as they were for much of 2020 through 2022.
What might help keep covid in check — and prevent another round of fevered division in our personal lives and in our national discourse — is that same calm watchfulness.
But already, some response to the roll-out of the latest versions of vaccines isn’t showing much promise.
Last week an advisory panel with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention endorsed the updated coronavirus vaccines for everyone 6 months of age and older. The vaccines target the XBB.1.5 strain, a subvariant of omicron, which are expected to be more effective against the prevalent strains of covid now present. The CDC recommendation followed the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of the new boosters by Moderna and Pfizer, which deemed both safe and effective against the coronavirus.
Leading the nation back into the political covid battles, however, was Florida’s Gov. Ron DeSantis, who defied the FDA and CDC recommendations and handed out his own medical advice, at least to those in his home state, advising Floridians under 65 to skip the covid boosters.
“I will not stand by and let the FDA and CDC use healthy Floridians as guinea pigs for new booster shots,” DeSantis said, backed by his state’s surgeon general. A statement from DeSantis’ office later claimed the covid-19 vaccines had “shown little to no benefit to prevent covid-19 infection,” a claim that stands against plain observation, evidence and the expertise of doctors and public health officials across the county.
Nor is it advice Floridians or anyone should follow from the governor of a state with a covid death rate of 111.7 per 100,000 residents, 18th highest in the nation, according to the CDC. For comparison, Washington state’s covid death rate stands at 61.5 deaths per 100,000, sixth lowest in the U.S. As well, DeSantis’ advice may have more to do with seeking attention and donations for his ailing campaign for the Republican presidential nomination than the well-being of his state’s residents or fellow Americans.
Is there legitimate concern regarding who should get a booster shot? The 14-member CDC panel voted 13-1 to make its recommendation, a convincing tally. But the lone dissenter, a pediatrics professor at The Ohio State University, voted against the recommendation over concerns that the new booster hadn’t been tested enough, particularly with children.
Dr. Leana S. Wen, a public health professor at George Washington University and a columnist for the Washington Post, notes that greater than 96 percent of children have antibodies against the coronavirus through infection, vaccination or both, immunity that is probably sufficient to safeguard against the disease, she said.
But Wen also wrote that the general public can now view covid boosters in the same way they do annual flu shots, preventative measures that are especially important for older adults and those with additional health issues, but a safe step for anyone with concerns about covid. Wen’s opinion of the CDC booster recommendation was that it was overly broad, but still the right call.
Perhaps, then, this is a discussion that’s best left to you and your doctor.
At the same time, we can do without a repeat of exchanges hurled between community members over masks. People can use the same watchfulness for community rates of covid infections to decide where and when to wear a mask, and follow requests to wear them in situations where there’s reason for caution, such as indoor areas with close contact during periods when rates of infection are higher.
Bleating a sheeplike “baa” at someone wearing a mask is so 2020, but so are the disapproving comments to those not wearing masks when outdoors or when others can easily keep their distance when necessary.
Nobody wants a repeat of the covid pandemic; either in the infections, illness and deaths that were experienced or in the unnecessary derision over the public health response that we all endured.