Ever so briefly, Hancock County joined the ranks of Maine counties with a “substantial” risk of COVID transmission. The rating is based on COVID cases per 100,000 people over seven days. Hancock joined Somerset County with “substantial” transmission; Waldo County is rated “high.” Just a day or so later, Hancock’s cases-per-100,000 index slipped back below the “substantial” level, restoring Hancock County to the “moderate” list with our other 13 counties.
The “substantial” designation means the CDC recommends masks indoors for everyone, vaccinated or not, and Governor Janet Mills is following the CDC lead. Mind you, this is a recommendation at this point, not a requirement. Governor Mills declared an end to her declaration of emergency as of June 30, giving up the authority to issue executive orders regarding masks, gatherings and other pandemic management measures.
Small population numbers mean it only takes a few cases up or down to determine a county’s risk standing. The data is daunting. Different sources report different data points, ranking cases against different volumes of population. Some sources report daily, some weekly, making comparison difficult. Bottom line? We’re going in the wrong direction.
Maine just passed the 900-death mark. Hancock County reports 40 deaths, but that does not include out-of-state visitors who sickened here and perhaps died, here or at home. Those are reported in their home states, so we don’t really know the number of deaths on our turf.
The general public has greeted all this with the same degree of anxiety or skepticism with which they have met the initial year and a half of the pandemic. Some reach for their masks while others say precautions are an unacceptable invasion of our rights. Mask mandates in schools are a government effort to “co-parent.” Kids are being robbed of their childhood.
So far, Maine has stopped short of a mask requirement, leaving decisions up to local school administrations. But the state is going to gather data on the numbers of students and teachers who are vaccinated.
Now the roughly two-thirds of us who are fully vaccinated have to go back to staying home or wearing a mask when out since the unvaccinated are merrily sharing their COVID virus with abandon, which even the vaccinated can contract (though they will likely have a milder, survivable illness).
One would assume that those who are refraining from vaccination and encouraging others to do the same have not yet sat at the bedside of a parent, a sibling, a friend or, God forbid, a child, watching them die from a disease that can be prevented or ameliorated by vaccination. May they never. That is too hard a lesson to be wished on anyone.
The economic recovery, which has been robust in our area, could be easily jeopardized by trying to wish COVID away. Hancock County has been flooded with people eager to get away, get outdoors, forget the last dismal year. But they’ve packed up their virus troubles in their old kit bags and brought them along to Vacationland.
Political debates, community protests and CDC guidance notwithstanding, precious few people are wearing masks. Check out the lines for ice cream in your town. Gone are the 6-foot limits on proximity to others. A creeping sense of anxiety may be back, but hardly anyone is changing their behavior because of it.
Schools are perhaps the hardest nut to crack. Kids under 12 do not yet have a vaccine authorized, even for emergency use. There is broad agreement on the reopening of schools. Last year’s remote or hybrid schooling took its toll on everyone: students, teachers and parents alike.
So, kids will be going back to school, and school administrators will have to decide whether to mandate teacher vaccination, report vaccination data for teachers and students, decide who must wear a mask and when, and manage everything from physical distancing to plastic shields between desks to playground behavior. It is easy to see how education can get lost in all of this. Yet school staff soldier on.
As summer hits its midpoint, more of the usual activity is available. Tour boats are crowded, restaurants are full and indoor events are booked again. Where will this send the numbers in another month? The pandemic of the unvaccinated will continue to roll along and case numbers will continue to climb.
Public health professionals are pulling out every trick in the book to convince people to get the shot. Reasoned arguments didn’t work, rewards helped but not enough, celebrity appeal ditto. It makes no sense to reject the government’s best advice on self-protection but then demand the government cover your health-care costs when you get sick. Should the unvaccinated pay for their own care? How sad that we have reached this point.
Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.