Too many of us in Yakima County are taking part in social gatherings deemed too large for the collective good. Too few of us are wearing masks in public. Too many are ignoring basic safety measures that have been advocated for weeks.
These folks are your neighbors, your friends, your family. Perhaps you’re one of them. They’re playing with COVID-19 fire by their actions and inactions, yet in the same breath many call for state and county officials to reopen businesses.
We are collectively thumbing our nose at practices that are encouraged or discouraged by nearly every health official on the planet — and by thumbing our nose, we’re touching our face, a health and safety no-no in the coronavirus era.
We are the fire station that is burning down. We are the ambulance driver who runs down a healthy bystander. We are the very definition of irony. We yearn for the return to sit-down dining and haircuts and visits to our places of worship. Yet our actions serve to push the attainment of those goals farther into the future.
At some point soon, do we morph into the young man who leaves his overbearing parents and joins the Army — because he’s sick and tired of being told what to do?
It might come to that sooner than later, according to Dr. Teresa Everson, health officer for Yakima County. She spoke with the Herald-Republic for a Wednesday story in which she and other health officials presented the latest bleak report on COVID-19 activities.
On the same day that 129 new infections were reported in Yakima County — the highest one-day total on record — Everson and Yakima Health District spokeswoman Lilian Bravo shared some alarming trends and numbers regarding the pandemic.
The county continues to record the highest number of cases per 100,000 people in Washington and has the second-highest number of total cases, after populous King County, home to Seattle. It also is off the scales with a positivity rate of 23%, highest in the state — 13,304 tests completed as of Wednesday, 3,184 cases confirmed. That’s compared with the statewide 6% rate. There were 87 recorded COVID-19-related deaths to that point.
And it’s not just older residents who are getting sick. Most cases in Yakima County are concentrated in younger populations, between ages 20 and 50, officials said recently.
We are averaging 50 to 100 new cases each day and are “a ways away” from entering Phase 2 of the reopening plan instituted by Gov. Jay Inslee, Bravo said.
Everson said that the health district, eager to see more positive trending in efforts to slow the spread of the highly contagious virus, is considering a declaration that people should wear masks in public areas, including stores. Everson’s March 13 stay-at-home order for Yakima County did not mention masks but did encourage social distancing. However, countless health experts from across the nation, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, long have recommended wearing masks in public settings. Doing so greatly reduces the risk that the wearer will pass the virus to somebody nearby.
But a recent survey by the health district and Virginia Mason Memorial hospital indicated a dismal mask-wearing rate of about 35% locally.
The mask-wearing declaration would not carry penalties for noncompliance, Everson said, but instead would serve as a clear statement of expectations.
In simple terms, we need to be told what to do.
“We as a community need to be doing a better job with masks,” Everson said. “We need every resident of Yakima County to be doing their part.”
To that, we would add that every business in Yakima County must do its part as well, which includes the strongest-possible encouragement for customers to don masks before entering. Costco implemented such a policy May 4.
Everson noted that Inslee is using five main metrics for judging counties’ readiness for reopening and that Yakima County isn’t showing preparedness in any of them, for the most basic of reasons: Lack of mask-wearing, household virus transmissions, group gatherings and outbreaks in care facilities.
What’s the No. 1 strategy for bringing down the county’s infection rates and speeding up our chances of entering Phase 2? Masks, she said.
The sooner more county residents begin to diligently follow health and safety guidelines — social distancing, masks, frequent hand-washing, staying home when possible and always staying home when ill — the sooner the county can reopen, Bravo said.
“If we want to see these rates go down, this is what we have to do,” she said.
It doesn’t get any simpler than that.