Julie McDonald Commentary: An End in Sight to Pandemic?

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It’s heartening to see the numbers of new coronavirus cases in Lewis County plummet and the organization of mass drive-through vaccination clinics at the Southwest Washington Fairgrounds.

Perhaps the end of the year-long pandemic is looming.

Only a year ago, my husband and I returned from a trip to Arizona to celebrate his birthday with his twin sister. Two nights before we flew home from Phoenix, we enjoyed dinner at their cousin’s favorite restaurant the night before it shut down because of the pandemic.

Since then, like so many people, we’ve hunkered down at home, worn masks when shopping, watched church services online and done our part to prevent the spread of a virus that kills the vulnerable — the elderly, the immune-compromised, the ill.

Naysayers downplay the virus, claiming it’s no more deadly than the flu, but they’re wrong. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, COVID-19 has killed 2.69 million people worldwide between January 2020 and March 19, 2021. The World Health Organization estimates 290,000 to 650,000 people die of flu-related causes each year.

As I waited in line for a Moderna vaccine Thursday, I realized how remarkable it is to have vaccines available in only a year to immunize people against the most deadly cases of coronavirus. Credit for fast-tracking creation of the vaccines goes to President Donald Trump and his administration’s Operation Warp Speed. Developing a vaccine usually takes 10 to 15 years, according to www.historyofvaccines.org.

My husband received his first dose of the Pfizer vaccine a few weeks ago. Neither of us experienced any significant side effects.

We’ve heard countless complaints about Gov. Jay Inslee’s shutdowns, which shuttered restaurants, bars, churches, schools and thousands of nonessential businesses during the past year, creating economic hardships and crises for hardworking business owners, employees, teachers, students, parents and others.

As of Friday, 539,000 people across America had died after contracting coronavirus, according to New York Times data, which broke down the numbers by state, listing deaths per 100,000 people. The highest death rates occurred in the Northeast states of New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Massachusetts, which averaged 271 to 243 deaths per 100,000. Six other states have death rates of more than 200 per 100,000. Thirty-two states have death rates between 100 and 199 per 100,000.

Washington state’s death rate per 100,000 is 69, ranking 44th in the nation; Oregon’s is 56, making it 46th in the nation. Hawaii ranks 50th with 32 deaths per 100,000 people.

What critics describe as draconian measures worked. But at what cost?

The answer to that will be debated for decades.

While I give Trump credit for enabling warp speed vaccine development, and give Inslee credit for keeping people safe despite themselves, the rollout of the vaccine has been horrendous, starting with reports that Bellevue’s Overlake Hospital offered the shots first to its major financial donors rather than frontline health care workers or nursing home residents. Overlake shut down its preferential line for donors to receive shots after a public rebuke from Inslee.

Initially, the vaccine was allocated to frontline health care workers and people in nursing homes. The state then opened up vaccinations to people 65 years and older. At that point, though, the distribution system failed elderly people who lacked Internet access or loved ones to advocate for them.

The government has access to everyone’s Social Security information, which provides ages and addresses. Why couldn’t government officials mail postcards to residents 65 and older giving them the option of logging onto a website or calling a toll-free number if they’re interested in obtaining the vaccination? It seems like a simple and equitable way to reach those who most needed the vaccine.

I believe in states’ rights, but some states excelled in distributing the vaccines they received while others floundered. New Mexico has topped that list for a month, distributing 88 percent of the vaccine it has received. Washington has improved from a few weeks ago, when it ranked 31st among states in distributing the vaccine it had received. Now it’s ranked 19th, having distributed 2.8 million of the 3.5 million doses received, or nearly 80 percent.

But even within the state, Lewis County lagged behind others in receiving a fair share of the limited vaccine supply. By mid-February, the county ranked dead last in the state in terms of residents receiving vaccines — only 6.76 percent had received the first dose compared with 11.73 percent statewide and only 1.7 percent of county residents were fully vaccinated compared with 4.1 percent statewide.

State and federal lawmakers questioned Inslee about the discrepancy, pointing out that Lewis County received only .5 percent of allocated doses yet comprises 1 percent of the state’s population. The county also has a higher percentage of elderly residents more susceptible to hospitalization and death from coronavirus.

By mid-February, Lewis County health officials had set up a local hotline and launched a mobile vaccination program to reach those elderly people who hadn’t been able to schedule a vaccination. That was a fantastic move to help homebound elderly residents and those without access to the Internet or knowledge of how to make an appointment.

Since then, the amount of vaccine provided to the county has increased, although we still lag behind more than 30 counties and statewide averages. By last week, 10.65 percent of county residents had received their first dose compared with 18.04 percent statewide, and the fully vaccinated number in Lewis County is 15.2 percent compared with the state average of 21.41 percent. We’ve finally received calls from local clinics where my husband’s name was placed on a waiting list two months ago.

Half of the county’s residents 70 and older have received one dose, with one-fourth fully vaccinated. I’m sure some don’t want the vaccine, which is fine. It’s a choice. We live in a free country.

The county plans to hold mass vaccination clinics every week on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, and Sundays at the fairgrounds. Thank you to all those organizing these clinics and to the United Way volunteers who have donated time to help.

Perhaps one day soon we’ll return to some semblance of normalcy. It’ll never be the same, but we can settle into a new normal.

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Julie McDonald, a personal historian from Toledo, may be reached at memoirs@chaptersoflife.com.

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