Tuesday, May 24, 2022
May 24, 2022

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Cowlitz County health officials predict some return to normal by summer

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One year since Cowlitz County recorded its first two COVID-19 cases, state and local health officials are predicting a return to “a sense of normalcy” by this summer.

On Monday – about one year after Gov. Jay Inslee ordered residents to stay home, banned gatherings and shut most businesses – the state will move forward in the governor’s reopening plan, allowing indoor locations to open at 50% capacity and spectators at events for the first time in a year.

Although virus activity remains relatively high, increasing supplies of COVID-19 vaccines have state and local health officials looking forward to the future.

President Joe Biden last week directed states to make all adults eligible for vaccination by May 1 and said the country should be closer to normal by the Fourth of July.

In Cowlitz County, top hospital and county health officials agreed it’s reasonable to expect the safe reopening of businesses and gatherings in the next few months.

“Sometime in the summer when vaccines are widely available and we’ve hopefully had a huge chunk of the population vaccinated, I think we can expect a return to some sense of normalcy,” said Dr. Steve Krager, county deputy health officer.

However, the time between now and then could go a variety of different ways depending on people’s behavior, vaccine uptake and if variants take hold, Krager said.

VaccinesThe arrival of COVID-19 vaccinations at PeaceHealth St. John in mid-December brought staff celebration and relief, but also a sense of fatigue, said Dr. Lawrence Neville, chief medical officer.

“These doctors and nurses really worked so hard,” he said.

Neville said he’ll never forget stories the doctors caring for COVID-19 patients have told him, including one doctor whose patient reminded her of her grandmother. The woman was struggling to breathe but didn’t want to go on a ventilator, he said. Staff did all it could to make her comfortable, but she died, which really affected her doctor, Neville said.

“We now have this relief and grieving of a year of seeing suffering that we did our best to fight, but we’re seeing it and taking it in,” he said.

People understandably have felt pandemic fatigue for months, but Neville and Krager said people need to hang on and continue safety precautions for just a bit longer to prevent more cases and deaths before vaccination is more widespread.

As vaccinations increase, public health officials likely will continue asking people to wear masks in large crowds and avoid going out if they are sick, Krager said. But it won’t take 100% of the population being vaccinated to get back to some normal life, he said.

“If we get people vaccinated, there’s no reason we can’t get back to concerts, sporting events, social gatherings,” he said. “We’re going to get there. It’s not that far away. I want people to hang on to the hope that we’re getting close to a time where we all get to do things we love and see people we love, and doing it with peace of mind as well.”

For now, everyone should continue to wear masks, stay home if they are sick, get tested when needed, and avoid private gatherings with people outside their household, Krager said.

Vaccine hesitancy

Since the beginning of the vaccine rollout, demand has far outpaced supply. State health officials said Thursday that will likely flip in the coming months as supply increases and more people become eligible for vaccination.

“We are really concerned that in time we are going to have vaccine hesitancy be a significant driver of how we are going to get vaccines to everyone throughout the state of Washington,” state Secretary of Health Dr. Umair Shah said in a press briefing Thursday. “There’s been a lot of misinformation in many communities across the state of Washington and across the country. I want to underscore how important it is that we continue to get the right information so vaccine demand does not decrease.”

Krager said he’s been concerned about vaccine hesitancy since vaccination began in mid-December and some healthcare providers refused the shot. While he understands hesitancy and the desire to learn more, data on the vaccines are available and show their safety, Krager said.

“The chances of getting COVID-19 and dying are much higher than having severe reaction to vaccine,” Krager said. “If you have opportunity to get vaccinated we strongly encourage you … the longer you wait, greater chance you’ll get an infection.”

Krager encourages people on the fence about the vaccine to talk to their healthcare provider and other trusted medical sources and to look at the data from the trials if they want to learn more.

Neville, with PeaceHealth, said he’s concerned if people don’t embrace vaccinations or get too fatigued with safety precautions, there’s a risk of another surge in cases before enough people are vaccinated to protect the community.

Variants

The state Department of Health is tracking three variants found to spread more easily and quickly than previous versions of the virus. Washington has seen an increase in cases of the variants, with 156 confirmed cases as of Wednesday.

Two cases of the variant spreading primarily in the United Kingdom were found in Clark County in February. No cases of the variants have been identified in Cowlitz County.

“What I fear is we’ve made a lot of progress … but if these variants catch hold and are able to spread more easily, we could see another spike in two weeks or a month,” Krager said. “It could be worse than what we saw this winter. I don’t think that’s likely but the possibility is there that we could get back to really bad numbers if we’re not careful.”

Krager said he hopes the downward trend in cases continues and the vaccine begins to help prevent cases and deaths.

“I can see the light at the end the tunnel but we still have a journey to get there. I hope we take the safest route possible.”

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