COVID, other diseases on the rise in WA. It’s time for vigilance not backing off | Editorial

Americans may think they’re through with COVID-19, but COVID isn’t through with us.

It is premature to set aside sensible precautions against a still-serious, even deadly, public health threat.

A poll conducted by Gallup in March found that 59% of U.S. adults believe the COVID pandemic is “over.”

That’s true for the technical pandemic, but COVID variants are still infecting people. The virus is surging in King County and across Washington as the summer travel season begins.

In April, only 1-in-200 visits to hospital emergency rooms in King County involved a COVID diagnosis. By last week, the rate had tripled. That’s still below the threshold for alarm, but the numbers are headed in the wrong direction.

The Washington State Department of Health’s respiratory disease dashboard is a useful tool for tracking COVID’s and other diseases’ crests and troughs. The department reports steep increases in the COVID virus’ levels in municipal wastewater treatment systems around the state, including in the Tri-Cities.

It’s easy to understand why most people see COVID as something that’s in the rear-view mirror. Public health officials have set aside the most intrusive responses to the pandemic such as lockdowns and mask mandates.

Meanwhile the weekly death toll nationwide has plunged from its late-2021 peak of more than 25,000. Weekly deaths are now counted in the hundreds.

Deaths and infections tapered off as Americans gained some degree of immunity to the virus, either through vaccination or by surviving an infection. Indeed, it’s harder to find someone who hasn’t had COVID at least once than someone who has.

It’s certainly safer to get together with family and attend a July Fourth barbecue than it was just a few years ago, but sensible precautions will go a long way.

COVID is still killing people — 97 in Washington state over the past three months, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If the virus spreads in the coming weeks, that number will only increase.

Fatalities are only one deleterious outcome, though. As the virus surges once again, even if death rates remain low, long COVID remains a threat.

An estimated 7% of adult Americans suffer lingering health and wellness impacts long after their bout with the disease. They experience symptoms such as fatigue, dizziness and brain fog for months or years.

COVID’s resurgence stems partly from the emergence of new variants of the virus. Dr. Eric Chow, King County’s chief of communicable diseases, explains that COVID is continually “trying to evolve and find ways to evade our existing immunity.”

Most Washingtonians received a vaccination when they first became available in late 2020. They haven’t kept up with boosters, though. Today, only one-in-five people is fully vaccinated against the variants that have emerged.

The importance of vaccination cannot be overstated. Those who have gotten their shots are likely to suffer milder symptoms if they become infected. And nearly all of the continuing deaths from COVID are occurring among the unvaccinated.

Vaccination is not the only bulwark. Frequent and thorough hand-washing is effective. Testing for COVID when symptoms appear and avoiding social contact after testing positive slows the spread of the virus to family members and the community.

And masks remain helpful. Masks might not be required, and they’ve certainly been controversial, especially around here, but the fact is that a properly worn N95 mask is a wise precaution that prevents someone who is coughing through the day from spraying, family, friends and co-workers.

These aren’t just COVID precautions, either. Whooping cough cases have increased tenfold over last year. The disease is especially serious for young children and can be almost completely prevented by vaccination. Washing hands and isolating people with symptoms can reduce the spread.

Then there’s the specter of avian flu. So far only a few cases among humans have been reported. But if the avian flu virus evolves the capacity for human-to-human transmission, the world could have another pandemic on its hands.

When it comes to COVID and other viruses capable of causing death and misery, now is not the time to back away from preparation, prevention and vigilance.