For many islanders, summer in the San Juans was marked by a sense of insulation from COVID-19.
Our case count was low and months went by without a new case. As long as the rules were followed — masks in public, 6-foot distancing, socialize within your bubble — it seemed that we could sustain prevention of the spread.
But as predicted, the fall months have seen an increase in cases, and as the disease is spreading in Washington state, that means it’s spreading here too. Ten new positive COVID test results have been reported in San Juan County since Oct. 26, and they primarily originated from people traveling off-island and then exposing friends and family.
“COVID-19 is currently spreading very quickly in Washington state,” said Secretary of Health John Wiesman in mid-November. “We are very concerned that disease transmission will only grow over the next few weeks with the holidays coming up. The threat to overwhelming not just our hospital systems, but our ability to do contact tracing, is real. We need everyone in Washington state to take action now to stop the spread.”
The majority of us are suffering from COVID-fatigue, which means we are tired of modifying our behavior and want life to return to the way it was. On Oct. 31, the Orcas Island Chamber of Commerce oversaw trick-or-treating along North Beach Road, an event that was approved by our county’s health department. Business owners handed out candy from tables, those over 5 years old were required to wear a mask and sanitizer was liberally applied to hands. The joy on children’s faces was a sight to behold.
As president of the chamber board, I was volunteering at the festivities along with other board members, chamber director Lance Evans and council member Rick Hughes. Over the course of the afternoon, we encountered three different families who refused to wear masks. We spoke to those people individually and two of the three refused to comply with the safety mandates, so they were asked to leave. It was shocking to witness members of our small, isolated communities with a highly vulnerable population of elders so flagrantly disregarding others’ welfare.
We are at risk of undoing all of our COVID-19 prevention progress. We need to continue to be vigilant to avoid widespread transmission here. So many of us — business owners, students, parents, the elderly — are making daily sacrifices for the betterment of our communities. Please respect that by doing your part as well.
As we enter into colder weather and the holiday season — which means indoor gatherings — officials recommend the following: get your flu shot; stay home with your household family; do not travel off-island; don’t hold gatherings indoors with others; cover your face; wash or sanitize your hands often and avoid touching your face; and do not have friends or family visit from off-island.
The San Juan County Health Department recognizes that some of us will not follow all of that advice. If you are in that category, please read the following. Do not travel or host guests if you have COVID-like symptoms; limit the size of your gatherings and open windows for ventilation; host events outside (try canopy tents, heaters, fire pits and picnic shelters); always wear a face-covering when you’re around people who don’t live with you; have visitors stay in a hotel; consider getting tested before traveling; if you do travel, drive to your destination; take special care to protect those who are at high risk; if you do choose to interact closely with others, quarantine when you return home or your guests leave; if you have college students coming home to visit, do all you can to have them be thoughtful about how they socialize.
Brendan Cowan, director of the San Juan County Department of Emergency Management, wrote in a column last week: “It is almost certain that we will see cases in the islands resulting from young adults returning home.”
It’s critical to understand that we’re headed into the worst stretch of COVID cases yet. By remaining vigilant with our face coverings, hand washing and socializing, we can keep ourselves and each other safe. This is a very difficult time and we will continue to thrive by being kind to each other and ourselves.
We’re all in this together.