Alaina Livingston, a fourth-grade teacher at Silver Firs Elementary, receives a covid-19 vaccine at a vaccination clinic for Everett School District teachers and staff at Evergreen Middle School in March in Everett. (Olivia Vanni / Herald file photo)

Alaina Livingston, a fourth-grade teacher at Silver Firs Elementary, receives a covid-19 vaccine at a vaccination clinic for Everett School District teachers and staff at Evergreen Middle School in March in Everett. (Olivia Vanni / Herald file photo)

Editorial: Delta variant is playing hardball; so must we

A mask requirement is the right call, as is a vaccine mandate for state workers. Teachers should be next.

By The Herald Editorial Board

Mandates, it is.

The past week has seen a new round of requirements and calls to expand mandates — for masking and for covid-19 vaccinations — because of the frightening increase in coronavirus infections locally and across the state and nation, almost exclusively caused by the delta variant, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says is nearly twice as contagious as the original virus and its earlier variants.

In Snohomish County, covid infections have reached their second-highest peak of the five surges since covid’s arrival in the county in March 2020. The most recent numbers from the Snohomish Health District showed a weekly total of 1,310 confirmed and probable infections at the end of July, while the most recent numbers for the two-week rolling average showed a rate of 279 infections per 100,000 residents, easily surpassing the rate seen for the fourth wave in late April and early May.

At the same time, hospitalizations at Snohomish County hospitals for the last week of July jumped to 35 new admissions for covid infections, up from 14 to 17 weekly admissions just a few weeks ago. A total of 62 covid patients were in local hospitals as of Tuesday. Intensive care units at local hospitals, including non-covid patients, are now above 90 percent capacity.

Yet, vaccination rates — to the frustration of health and other officials and many who are vaccinated — have edged up only slowly. In Snohomish County, 62 percent, according to Snohomish Health District’s most recent report, are fully vaccinated, with another 6 percent having initiated the first shot for the two-dose vaccines. Of the estimated 706,950 eligible for vaccination in the county, 12 years and older, more than 227,000 — nearly 1 in 3 — are not vaccinated.

Those numbers and remaining confusion regarding the CDC’s recent change in its guidance on mask use for those who are vaccinated, prompted the county’s top public health official, Dr. Chris Spitters, to issue a countywide mask mandate for indoor public spaces for all residents, 5 years and older, regardless of vaccination status.

“We want to remove any ambiguity as to what the desired action is, that’s that we all wear a mask in public settings,” Spitters said during a media briefing Tuesday. “It’s good for people’s health and it’s good for businesses in the long run,” Spitters said in a story in Tuesday’s Herald.

The mask mandate, Spitters said, is the best way to pull down the curve of the latest wave of infections.

And it’s the right call by the county’s public health agency. The mandate serves as a public reminder to carry a mask and use it, while at the same time takes some of the heat off business owners and employees of stores, gyms and similar businesses to police their own rules.

Similarly, recent vaccination mandates at the state level also are now necessary as the pandemic drags past 18 months of deprivation and sacrifice. Gov. Jay Inslee announced Monday that health care workers and state employees — working in agencies under his supervision, such as the departments of Transportation, Corrections, the State Patrol, Social and Health Services and other state agencies, would be required to show proof of full vaccination by Oct. 18, or face “nondisciplinary dismissal.” Essentially, vaccination will become a job requirement for specific state employees. Exceptions will be made for legitimate health and religious reasons.

Not included in the order were employees of the state’s colleges and universities, but many already have required vaccinations for students, faculty and staff as the fall semester begins.

Nor is vaccination required of the state’s K-12 teachers, though state schools Superintendent Chris Reykdal recently made that request of the governor, which Inslee has the authority to do.

That’s the right call, too, and one Inslee should follow.

Of all the covid shutdowns that we endured during the past 18 months, we cannot risk repeating a re-closure of school buildings and a return to remote learning as the only learning option. As it is, students have too much ground to make up to return to anything less than classroom learning. Full vaccination of all school staff, added to the state’s mask mandate for schools, would provide a higher level of certainly that children can fully continue their education and do so safely.

Parents, at the same time, have a responsibility to vaccinate their children against covid — as well as all other childhood diseases — prior to the return to school, now just a couple of weeks away.

Of Snohomish County students, 12 to 15 years of age, only 37.7 percent — about 16,000 of nearly 42,500 students — were fully vaccinated as of July 25, according to the most recent report from the county health district. Another 7.7 percent were partially vaccinated. The numbers for older students, ages 16 to 19, were better, 54.6 percent were fully vaccinated, with another 7.4 percent partially vaccinated.

Vaccines have not yet been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for children 11 and younger, leaving that population more vulnerable to infection.

That vulnerability can no longer be minimized with the earlier assurances that children faced little threat from covid. Delta, as it has for adults, has changed that for children.

Nationwide, a total of 4.3 million children have tested positive since the start of the pandemic. For the week ending Aug. 5, more than 93,000 children in the United States tested positive for covid-19, a 400 percent increase from three weeks earlier, according to a report by the American Academy of Pediatrics. For the same week, children represented 15 percent of all covid cases. And more than 200 children are hospitalized each day because of covid.

Severe illness remains uncommon among children, however, the academy warned, “there is an urgent need to collect more data on longer-term impacts of the pandemic on children, including ways the virus may harm the long-term physical health of infected children, as well as its emotional and mental health effects.”

That’s not a risk any of us should want to force on children and reason enough to mask up and vaccinate.

If voluntary compliance isn’t getting us there — and it’s not — then mandates, it is.

Everett Schools vaccine clinic

Everett Public Schools will offer free covid-19 vaccinations at Evergreen Middle School from 12:30 to 4 p.m., Saturday, Aug. 21, for the first dose; and 12:30 p.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 11, for the second. Appointments are preferred but not required. Children need to be accompanied by a parent or guardian. A link for registration is available at www.everettsd.org/Page/39499.

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