As holidays arrive let’s be thankful but wary| Editorial

News of a vaccine is tempered by a sobering increase in infection rates. We can’t let up yet.

This week, as we give thanks for the blessings in our lives, we can express gratitude for the scientists and researchers who have made uncommonly speedy progress on a vaccine for COVID-19, providing a bit of good news amid shocking reports of escalating case counts in the nation, our state and Snohomish County.

Earlier this month, pharmaceutical maker Pfizer and its German partner, BioNTech, announced that preliminary results of trials for their vaccine candidate showed it to be more than 90 percent effective, with no serious safety concerns for side effects beyond mild fever or fatigue. That 90 percent rate is important because it provides the best hope for a quicker spread of immunity among populations and far exceeds the minimum goal of 50 percent effectiveness set by the federal Food and Drug Administration for COVID vaccine candidates. That effectiveness rate is higher than the 50 percent to 60 percent seen with the annual flu vaccine and is near the 97 percent rate seen with two doses of measles vaccine.

Further bolstering hopes is the fact that Pfizer’s results may mean similar outcomes for another 10 vaccine candidates now in late-stage trials.

A limited release of the Pfizer vaccine — initially reserved for those at highest risk of infection, such as health care workers and older adults — could be ready near the end of the year, following more review of study data, The New York Times reported.

The danger in that good news, however, is that it might lead some — believing that the worst has passed and a cure is just around the corner — to let down their guards and ease up on wearing masks and following other social-distancing and hygiene measures.

That’s not the message to take from this, especially now.

In many ways in San Juan County and in the rest of the state, recent numbers for infections and other metrics are worse than during either of the earlier two covid surges, according to state health officials.

Washington state has recorded more than 2,400 deaths total during the pandemic, while the nation’s toll has risen to more than 243,000. Current projections from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, show that Washington may see more than 3,600 deaths by year’s end and as many as 7,000 by March 1. The nation could see 320,000 deaths by Dec. 31, and 439,000 by March 1.

On Nov. 16, San Juan County reported six new cases of COVID-19, adding to a total of 19 cases diagnosed in the county in the two week period between Nov. 2 and 15. More than one-third of San Juan County’s COVID cases have been diagnosed this month alone.

“This spike puts us in a more dangerous a position as we were in March,” Inslee said during a press conference Nov. 15. “And it means, unfortunately, the time has come to reinstate restrictions on activities statewide to preserve the public’s well-being and to save lives. These were very difficult decisions that have very real consequences to people’s livelihoods. I recognize that and don’t take those impacts lightly, but we must act now and act quickly to slow the spread of this disease.”

It’s the nature of how the disease is now spreading that is providing guidance. Most of the transmission, according to the county health district, is coming not from community transmission, such as exposure in public spaces, but from close contacts, typically indoors with family and friends who live outside of the immediate household, such as family celebrations and having friends over for football games.

That data has led Gov. Jay Inslee and health officials to renew calls for vigilance on masks and social distancing and reupping restrictions. On Nov. 15, Inslee reinstated statewide restrictions, including a ban on indoor social gatherings until Dec. 14.

That’s a tough ask, especially for families who have had to limit their gatherings for months already.

Yet, until vaccines are widely available and distributed, a little longer period of social distancing and more vigilance about wearing masks can help make sure that next year we can welcome family and friends into our homes and give thanks for being able to celebrate together without fear of endangering the health and lives of our loved ones.

This editorial was originally published by the Journal’s sister publication, the Everett Daily Herald, and has been modified to be relevant to San Juan County readers.