Idaho Falls has rapidly become the worst place in the country for coronavirus spread, with hospitals again essentially overwhelmed. There are at least two causes.
The first we can control, though some of us have barely tried and others have actively resisted.
Masks significantly slow community spread of COVID-19. Cloth masks are good. Surgical, KN95 and N95 masks, now broadly available, are much better.
Staying home and avoiding large gatherings stops superspreader events, like local sporting events where masking and social distancing rules have been ignored, helping fuel widespread infection.
Lots of people in Idaho Falls are wearing masks. But since mask mandates were lifted, some have taken that as a signal to relax. To see the consequences, follow the steadily growing number of obituaries in the pages of this paper.
The decision never to enforce mask mandates — to ignore the law — has killed an unfathomable number of people. Hundreds of people in eastern Idaho and nearly 2,000 statewide have died of COVID-19. That’s about two decades’ worth of drunk driving fatalities in a single year. It is not an exaggeration to say that if all resources normally dedicated to drunk driving enforcement in Idaho had been diverted to mask and gathering size enforcement, lives would have been saved.
Instead, the Legislature has concerned itself with banning mask mandates and increasing the number of superspreading sports gatherings, before itself going into recess because maskless lawmakers kept infecting one another and those around them.
And now there is a factor we cannot control. As we reported last week, doctors are reporting that COVID-19 has begun behaving differently than it had in the past. It’s spreading much, much faster. People are getting sicker. Suddenly, lots of 30-, 40- and 50-year-olds are in the ICU. People who got sick and recovered are getting sick again.
Early this week, we found out why. Though there isn’t sufficient testing to say how prevalent they are yet, both the UK variant and the California variant are spreading in eastern Idaho.
The UK variant is especially terrifying. Perhaps 75% more infectious and more deadly than the standard strain, the UK variant has quickly led places that had the virus under control, as we never have, back into lockdown.
This is a race against time.
The more the virus spreads, the more mutations will accumulate. And with every mutation, there is a chance that an escape variant — a variant which existing vaccines or previous infections won’t protect against — will arise. That would be a disaster hard to contemplate.
An escape variant means starting over from square one — traveling back in time to February 2020 and doing the whole damn thing over again.
That doesn’t have to be our future. It’s up to us to stop it, since state leaders won’t.
As Columbia University disease researcher David Ho said, after publishing a study showing the South African variant reduced the effectiveness of one vaccine from 90% to 50%, “If the rampant spread of the virus continues and more critical mutations accumulate, then we may be condemned to chasing after the evolving SARS-CoV-2 continually, as we have long done for influenza virus. Such considerations require that we stop virus transmission as quickly as is feasible, by redoubling our mitigation measures and by expediting vaccine rollout.”
So now, more than ever, stay home when you can, stay away from large groups, wear a mask when you must go out, wash your hands and get vaccinated as soon as you are eligible. We may be approaching a time when we have herd immunity, when life has returned to normal and we can look back at 2020 as the fading memory of a nightmare.
Or in 2030 we may ask ourselves, “How are we still here?”