Are we safe? Are we not safe? We thought we were safe, or getting safe, and started to pick back up on life as we used to know it. It was wonderful to be out and about and heartening to see businesses that were knocked flat getting back on their feet after last year’s near-total washout. Then, just as we thought we were out of the woods, we ran smack into a tree.
Maine’s vaccination rate is approaching 65 percent, and one news source puts the number of people with at least one shot at 78.5 percent. But in a nation hungry for “normal,” visitors from outside the state are pouring in in record numbers, diluting the ranks of the vaccinated in our state and increasing the risk for all of us. Florida, Texas and Missouri account for 40 percent of COVID cases nationwide. The license plates of all three are well represented on the highways and byways of Hancock County.
January to May, visits to Acadia National Park are up 55 percent over the same period in pre-COVID 2019. Businesses throughout Hancock County are reporting a record-breaking season, and it’s not half over. Lines proliferate at restaurants everywhere, and ice cream? You have to really want ice cream, badly enough to stand in line for longer than it takes to eventually lick the cone to the bottom.
Low vaccination rates correlate with high case rates among states, and among Maine counties, too, but cases are trending upward all over the state. This is not a coincidence, people. If you get vaccinated, you don’t get sick, and if you do, it is highly unlikely you will end up in the hospital. Masks are beginning to make a limited reappearance and some people are once again choosing to avoid enclosed spaces (stores and restaurants), but the overall pace seems to be full steam ahead.
Signs everywhere politely ask the unvaccinated to wear a mask, but are those who refuse vaccination likely to agree to wear a mask? In a crowded store with hardly a mask in sight, it is a safe bet that a significant number of the unmasked include the unvaccinated. There is little honor in the honor system.
Those resistant to vaccination make arguments ranging from personal freedom to unsupported claims of harm from the vaccine. People who chose to be vaccinated often end up wearing a mask anyway, to limit the chance of a “breakthrough” case of COVID or to protect kids under 12 who cannot yet receive the vaccine.
The vaccine is free and available in more and more places. The only remaining reasons (aside from medical contraindication) not to get the shot are the tired laments of the uninformed. Government can’t tell me what to do. They’re going to plant a microchip in my arm. I won’t be able to have children. Yet 98 percent of COVID hospitalizations are reported to be among the unvaccinated. Of those hospitalizations, a growing number of young adults (late teens to early 20s) are critically ill and intubated as the Delta variant becomes widespread.
One of the most contentious debates of the pandemic is whether vaccinations or masks should be mandatory for staffs, customers or patients. The state continues to follow CDC guidelines, designating these lifesaving measures “recommended” or “strongly recommended” but not mandatory.
With CDC consent, private businesses have a right to determine their own rules, just as we have a right to choose whether to patronize those places. But schools and health-care facilities? These are not discretionary activities. Get sick? You head for the hospital or doctor’s office. If you’re a kid? School.
If you are ill with a malady other than COVID, how would you feel about being admitted to a hospital that does not require staff vaccination? Google the Maine Health Care Worker COVID-19 Vaccination Dashboard to find data on vaccination rates at hospitals, assisted housing, nursing homes and other health-care facilities by name. In June, the vaccination rate among Mount Desert Island Hospital personnel was 82.4 percent, Northern Light Blue Hill 83.1 percent and Northern Light Maine Coast (Ellsworth) 69 percent.
This type of data is not available for schools. Should we put teachers who are unvaccinated by choice in front of vulnerable 12-and-unders for whom there is no vaccine? Home schooling may be an option, but for most, public school it is. Will teachers be required to report their vaccination status and, if unvaccinated, wear a mask?
Is it fair to allow school personnel to be unvaccinated? Is it fair to force someone to be vaccinated to retain employment? These are difficult questions. But since many people are still unwilling to be vaccinated, we are forced to come to grips with them. The safety of our kids hangs in the balance.
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.