Quarantine fatigue is bringing an end to our lockdown, whether we're ready or not.
All 50 states now are reopening, no matter what’s going on with the virus. This anxiousness to get back to regular life and work, which you can feel bursting on the suddenly crowded streets of Seattle, may have been baked into the timeline centuries ago, when the word “quarantine” was coined by the Italians.
It’s a mashup of “quaranta giorni,” or "forty days." Wednesday marks Day 58 we've been cooped up since the March 23 shutdown order. No wonder we got restless.
The good news is that, in King County, which had the first confirmed death in the nation in February, the virus has been driven down to near-suppression levels. On Sunday, the county reported just 31 new cases of the virus. That’s the lowest daily case figure since March 7, back when there was also far less testing being done.
Keeping the virus down now as we reopen would require testing, tracing and isolating the new cases. It’s a level of control and follow-through that probably isn’t in our DNA. But 31 cases is getting low enough that isolating the virus becomes at least theoretically possible.
The flip side can be seen only 140 miles away, in Yakima. It’s a real-time rebuke to the coronavirus cliché that “we’re all in this together.”
Yakima County, one-ninth the size of King, had 82 new cases Sunday. Two days prior, it reported 122 new cases. It now has a case rate of more than 1,000 per 100,000 residents, the highest of any county on the West Coast and three times the rate of King.
In the last few days, nearly half of all the new cases reported in the state were in Yakima.
The Yakima outbreak was clustered at first in nursing homes, like here, but is now running through agriculture and fruit-packing plants. The health officer there said the spread there versus relative containment elsewhere is because two-thirds of the jobs in Yakima are considered both “essential” (such as the food industry) and hands-on (can’t be done remotely).
“We’re a little bit of a model of what it looks like when you have a lot of the population going off to the workplace,” Dr. Teresa Everson told The Seattle Times. “We never got to low mobility.”
Sixty-four percent of the infected people are Hispanic or Latino. Some of the Latino neighborhoods have case rates up to 2,300 per 100,000 — five times the U.S. average, and nine times the state rate.
Due to all this, the farmworkers, many of them seasonal migrants, made a reasonable request that they not be clustered together into big bunk-bed farm dormitories at night. But the state decided to allow the bunking of workers in groups of 15 (even as the rest of us technically have been advised not to gather in a group of any size, even while outside).
The state’s rule “not only defies science, they defy basic human rights,” said the Latino Civic Alliance of Yakima.
Despite that, on Monday the workers were being told by some to quit complaining and man up to the virus.
“Return to work,” read a sign, in Spanish, on a car roaming past lines of protesting migrant workers, as reported by the Yakima Herald-Republic . “Your fear is the virus that is attacking our civil rights. Free yourself!”
Yeah, you there, the poorest, most marginalized people in the state. You be the tip of the spear.
Seriously this tale of two counties, King and Yakima, is a study in how the pandemic is widening society’s preexisting class divides.
Amazon, the king of King, has already told its 50,000 Seattle office-workers they are welcome to log on from the safety of home until at least October. Makes sense if you can do it, as probably by then we’ll know if there’s a second wave.
But meanwhile, the campesinos of Yakima, where the first wave has yet to crest, are being shouted at on the side of the road to get back to the front lines pronto for the good of all.
For all the talk of hard tyranny, the disease specialists say our lockdown was, if anything, too soft. It flattened the curve, but a la Yakima, was too squishy to truly hammer down the spread of the virus.
“This is exactly what countries like South Korea and New Zealand have been able to achieve,” writes Fred Hutch infectious-diseases scientist Trevor Bedford. “The US was not able to reach suppression with our lockdown, and so we're left with agonizing decisions about how to keep society functioning while holding the virus in check.”
Recognizing that the agony is going to be felt far worse in some places than others would be a place to start.