Health officers: COVID still poses a danger

Tourist season, increase in variants cited

Though COVID-19 cases are leveling off and millions are vaccinated, this is not the time to shrug off the risks of exposure. Summer travel season will soon hit full strength, and too many people have yet to be immunized: That’s the message from both Jefferson and Clallam counties’ health officers, Drs. Allison Berry and Tom Locke.

Jefferson added just one new case of the disease last week, for a total of 418 since the pandemic’s onset, while Clallam added five cases for a total of 1,358.

“Tourist season is really kicking in big time,” Locke said Saturday.

So people on the North Olympic Peninsula are potentially exposed to COVID carriers from across the state, country and world. He, Berry and the health care community are striving to raise the rate of vaccination, one conversation at a time.

“We’re trying to use a light touch. It doesn’t work to scare people into making decisions they’re reluctant to make,” Locke said, yet “the risks of COVID are going up. The strains are becoming more virulent,” while elderly and immunocompromised people are at risk of becoming severely ill.

This past week, five residents and two staff members at a Clallam County long-term care facility became infected with the coronavirus; two of the residents are in the hospital’s intensive care unit, Berry reported.

A visiting family member — unvaccinated — brought COVID into the facility, she said.

So while the five residents had been immunized, their age and immunosuppressed condition meant their immune systems could not mount a strong enough response to the vaccine.

The outbreak shows the threat to high-risk individuals is especially serious until herd immunity is reached, Berry said. It’s more important than ever to raise the vaccination rate across the entire population, she said, to protect the vulnerable.

“Very elderly folks, even vaccinated, can get very sick,” Berry said.

At a recent Sequim Farmers Market vaccination clinic, Berry had a conversation with an elderly veteran. They spent about 15 minutes talking one on one as she listened and answered questions. The man then decided to get the COVID shot — and call several friends to encourage them to do the same.

“It has to be a safe, trusted conversation — not on Facebook,” Berry said.

She urges people to talk with their own doctors and nurse practitioners about the various vaccines. And she reminded her colleagues in the healthcare community to take time for this conversation with their patients.

“They want to hear your thoughts,” she said.

Locke, for his part, had a conversation with a young person that took him aback in a positive way. The person, relatively young and healthy, didn’t perceive much of a personal benefit from getting vaccinated.

“What tipped them over the line was the community benefit: so we can open things back up again,” he said. The person wasn’t worried about becoming severely ill, but wanted to contribute to the larger effort.

“That was refreshing,” Locke said.

The coming week brings a new set of incentives for immunization: the “Shot of a Lifetime” campaign.

The Washington State Lottery is conducting it in concert with state agencies and companies, offering a lengthy list of prizes: cash, with awards totaling $2 million; tickets to Seattle Mariners, Seahawks, Storm and Sounders games; gift cards and Alaska Airlines tickets to anywhere that airline flies.

The only action that Washingtonians need to take to win the drawings for any of the prizes is to get vaccinated, according to the state Department of Health. Everyone previously vaccinated is eligible as well, regardless of citizenship; proof of Washington residency is required.

All of this is an effort to up the vaccination rate significantly in time for the state’s June 30 target date for reopening.

“There are still far too many people who have not started vaccination,” state Secretary of Health Umair Shah said, adding that the goal is for 70 percent of eligible adults to initiate immunization.

In Clallam County, nearly 62 percent of residents 16 and older have begun the vaccination process while slightly more than 56 percent are fully vaccinated.

Jefferson County’s rate of vaccine initiation for people 16 and older is 72.29 percent; the fully vaccinated portion is nearing 68 percent.

Clinics, pop-up sites and pharmacies are offering the shots, with and without appointments. The state’s site locator, https://vaccine locator.doh.wa.gov, shows where appointments are available and which vaccine will be used at the various sites.

Both Peninsula counties have COVID information phone numbers: Jefferson’s Department of Emergency Services is reached at 360-344-9791 while Clallam’s hotline is 360-417-2430. Information is also available at each county’s website.

At the end of this week, several high schools will hold their graduation ceremonies outdoors — a good thing, Berry said. These events were planned many weeks ago, with protocols including masking and distancing.

“We know a lot more about the virus now. We can do an outdoor graduation well,” she said, adding the graduates and their families can use a good celebration right about now.

________

Jefferson County senior reporter Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-417-3509 or durbanidelapaz@peninsuladaily news.com.

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