Wednesday, August 4, 2021
Aug. 4, 2021

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Westneat: We blew our chance to crush COVID

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If you travel about the country, as I just did to visit my dad in Ohio, the coronavirus pandemic feels a lot like it does now here in Seattle: Like old news. But you don’t have to look any farther than Walla Walla to see that COVID-19 is anything but past tense.

“In June, Walla Walla County had more positive COVID cases than April and May combined,” the health district in that southeast Washington county warned the other day.

Now July is already running worse than June. Walla Walla is “one of three counties in the state that the CDC has classified as a high level of transmission,” health officials said, before adding, plaintively: “Wear a mask and watch out for those around you!”

Few are doing the mask-wearing and social-distancing thing anymore. We’re done with a pandemic that is not done with us. Those three counties referred to above — Walla Walla, Benton and Franklin — had, as of last week, the highest current COVID rates of any counties on the West Coast, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.

Walla Walla was reporting its recent 14-day rate as 334 cases per 100,000 population — a disease spread that not long ago could have landed the county into a Phase 2 restriction of businesses and events (not anymore though, as the whole state is now 100 percent open).

What’s happening is as simple as it is frustrating: Only about half, or fewer, of the eligible people in these counties have gotten vaccinated. In Walla Walla, where 45 percent of the 62,500 residents have been fully vaxxed, 90 percent of the recent COVID patients hadn’t gotten the shot, officials said.

I bring all this up to say: We had our chance to stomp down the coronavirus. We didn’t do it. We blew it.

The whole point of attaining “herd immunity” isn’t that the virus would be gone. It’s that when an outbreak occurs, it could be isolated and contained because most people would have some level of immunity.

But that “most people” threshold has not been reached in many places. And based on the dwindling rates of vaccination, we aren’t going to reach it. So we’re likely to see repeating cycles of these surges.

It’s time to just let people live with the consequences, I guess. It’s all so unnecessary, though. The state is caught betwixt and between — the emergency is seemingly over, yet in a parallel universe it rips and runs. With the vaccines so easy to get there’s no longer much point in asking why up to two-thirds of residents in some counties won’t get the shots.

This “two societies” thing is starting to raise awkward questions, though.

“This is crass,” one reader wrote me the other day, “but who pays? If someone refuses for political beliefs to get vaccinated, gets COVID, goes to the hospital, has no health insurance, then who pays? There are ramifications for their refusal … who pays for these ramifications?”

The big picture answer first: We will all pay, through hospital charity care, higher health costs, taxes to support Medicare or Medicaid, and so on. This is why a few weeks ago I was ready to pay people to get vaccinated — we’re going to pay one way or another.

But lately one influential player said it won’t be them paying anymore. Insurance companies have signaled they are done with special “we’re all in this together” pandemic rules. For the past year, most insurers agreed to waive any copays or deductibles for COVID treatments. Now those deals are over. The largest health insurer in Washington state, Premera Blue Cross, ended its waiver of copays and deductibles for COVID treatments on June 30, for example. Some others did it sooner.

This “is a big deal if you get sick” from COVID, an insurance consultant told Kaiser Health News. “And then you find out you have to pay $5,000 out-of-pocket that your cousin didn’t two months ago.”

Maybe that’s the answer to vaccine resistance. Because the only thing scarier than the threat of a virus contagion or infecting grandpa or possible death? Being thrown to the mercy of American health insurance.

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