This week, Minnesota found itself with the dubious distinction of having the worst or among the nation’s worst COVID-19 case rates. Hospitalizations hit their highest since December of last year, reaching nearly 1,400. Test positivity rates and seven-day averages for cases topped the country at 70.9 per 100,000 people, as the News Tribune and Forum News Service reported.
Also this week, in response, Duluth health experts on the pandemic’s front lines renewed a plea for everyone in our community to do our part to stop — or to at least help slow down — this most recent rapid rise of the deadly virus.
“The only thing we can do as a community to try and slow it down is to stop community spread, so that’s vaccinating, and then, when the boosters are available, getting them as soon as (possible). That is going to be key,” Dr. Christina Bastin De Jong, an intensive care unit doctor for Essentia Health in Duluth, said in an exclusive interview held virtually this week with the News Tribune Opinion page. She was among three health professionals in the interview.
“And then, of course, trying to gather in smaller groups (and) wearing our masks, even if we’re just going in to grab coffee (or) we’re going into the post office, are musts,” she said. “Doing these types of things — we’ve done it before; we can do it again. I think we really need to do it again to stop the community spread. It’s happening so quickly that the hospitals are filled.”
The surge this time is different. It’s lasting longer. It’s spreading faster. As over it as we may be, our diligence is needed now more than ever to address the escalating case numbers, hospitalizations, and deaths. We need to recommit to this fight.
This surge is happening here because the weather is getting colder, more of us are indoors where the virus can spread more easily, and schools reopened this fall before children ages 5-11 were able to be vaccinated. The southern U.S. saw surges over the summer because more people there were similarly indoors escaping the heat.
Because of the delta variant, “This is a different virus than we were dealing with a year ago,” Dr. Andrew Thompson, an infectious diseases specialist at St. Luke’s, said in the interview. “Each infected person, especially each infected unvaccinated person, has the potential to infect more people around them than was the case a year ago. This is a more contagious virus.”
Also, the effectiveness and strength of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines begin waning at about six months. More “breakthroughs” are occurring as a result, though the original vaccinations are helping to prevent serious illness. It’s mostly those who aren’t vaccinated at all who are landing in hospitals, intensive care units, and morgues.
Even more important than boosters, Dr. Thompson stressed, is convincing those who are vaccine hesitant to change their minds. If not for themselves, they can get a jab to protect others more vulnerable and at risk. They need to understand that the virus can spread more easily when fewer are protected from it, which is precisely what we’re seeing now. And the longer it sticks around the more likely it is to mutate into other new variants, sending our medical professionals back to square one.
“We’re all struggling with how to make the scientific case, the humanitarian case, the responsible case for why (getting vaccinated) is the right choice to make,” Dr. Thompson said. “Vaccines work better the more people who are vaccinated. And we know this not from COVID but from other infections, (like) measles. The measles vaccine isn’t perfect, but because we’re all vaccinated you don’t see breakthroughs. It’s so hard for it to move through the population. We require collective action to end (the COVID-19 pandemic). That’s where we’re lacking.”
As seemingly impressive as it is, Minnesota’s 70% or so vaccination rate simply isn’t high enough to prevent COVID-19 and its more aggressive delta variant from moving through the population. It isn’t high enough to make the coronavirus go away.
“We’re all fed up with it,” Dr. Bastin De Jong said. “Over 70% of us got our vaccines, so this can’t be happening again, right? But it is happening. And so (we’re) re-engaging (with the message that) it’s not over yet and that in order to help your neighbors and everybody around you, (we need to) do this one more time.”
Get vaccinated. Get a booster. Wear a mask. Avoid crowds. Stay home when sick. Wash your hands. Everyone needs to be on board to end this nightmare.