Wednesday, January 20, 2021
Jan. 20, 2021

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In Our View: We can decide when the pandemic ends

The Columbian

It’s the fifth day of the new year. Perhaps the most difficult year of our lives is behind us, but somehow we don’t feel any better. We can go to the store, if we wear our masks, and if the store isn’t too busy. We can go out to eat, if we don’t mind sitting in a tent in 40-degree weather as the rain beats steadily on the roof.

But we can’t go to the gym, or to the movies, or feel safe inviting guests into our home, much less go to their homes. How much longer will this last, and how will the pandemic be eased?

We should know more this week. December was a two-steps-forward, one-step-back month. On the positive side, vaccines began rolling out, and a wave of coronavirus that had been feared because people disregarded public health advice over Thanksgiving didn’t materialize. Infection rates started to trend lower by the end of the month both in Washington and in Clark County.

But we are still at a critical time in the disease cycle. The University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation model, to be updated this week, sees COVID-19 infections and deaths trending upward in Washington for most of January.

Here’s where it gets interesting. The daily death rate could peak as soon as Feb. 1, if vaccines are rolled out quickly, people wear masks in public and follow social distancing rules, or as late as Feb. 23 if restrictions are prematurely eased. Daily infections could peak as soon as Jan. 15 or as late as Feb. 9.

In other words, we can control our destiny.

Once the infection rate trends downward, the reopening will apparently be gradual. Although we haven’t heard much about it since last summer, Gov. Jay Inslee’s reopening plan still follows a four-phase grid, which he is calling Safe Start Washington. Each county is assigned a phase — Clark County is currently in Phase 2, as you might recall — based on metrics including disease activity, hospital readiness, contact tracing and notification, and protection of high-risk populations.

In response to rising transmission rates, the governor laid a series of emergency orders on top of this phased restart, which is why you went from eating at widely spaced tables in your favorite restaurant to eating in a tent in the parking lot. The order now expires Monday. Inslee has announced he will offer new guidelines this week.

Once the movement between Safe Start phases resumes, it will take a minimum of three weeks to move up. In Phase 3, we can look forward of gatherings of 10 people, and outdoor events with up to 50. Movie theaters can reopen, as long as not more than every other seat is occupied, and you can eat inside your favorite restaurant with up to seven other people. You’ll still be asked to wear a mask but you can go to the library, the museum, or a small community event like a craft show with fewer than 200 people. In-person school attendance is not addressed in Safe Start Washington, but local school boards can be expected to approve more in-person classes and activities.

Phase 4 is when the restrictions are greatly eased, with sporting events, concerts and nightclubs allowed to reopen. You will even be able to go work at the office!

As much as we want to get to a life without irksome restrictions, at best we still have a few more months to go before we get there. In the meantime, we have the ability to control how fast we arrive at the end of the pandemic by behaviors we choose to exhibit today.

While 2021 may be starting like the year that just concluded, we have the ability to control how long these difficult times will last.