It’s a bad time to become lax with masks

In recent weeks, this newspaper has been contacted by readers complaining about people flaunting the state mask mandate in local businesses. People without masks have been seen in grocery stores, a pizza place and big-box stores. Readers claimed that store employees didn’t do anything about the violations and some went without masks themselves.

One woman even sent a photo of a hospital district commissioner who took his mask off to talk to her in a grocery store, which is especially problematic. After all, he’s an elected official for an organization that’s on the frontlines of the pandemic.

Perhaps people mistakenly believe that they don’t need to wear a mask in public if they are vaccinated. Perhaps they mistakenly believe the pandemic is waning. Maybe it’s just pandemic fatigue or the typical community-health-be-damned-masks-violate-my-rights attitude.

Whatever the reasons, it’s really bad timing, with COVID-19 continuing to spread on Whidbey and the emergence of a newer and badder variant, Omicron. It appears to be the most contagious variant yet and it’s unclear how effective current vaccines will be against it, although pharmaceutical companies say vaccines can be tweaked to target Omnicron more effectively. Scientists also seem to agree that vaccinated people are less likely to become seriously ill from the variant.

The emergence of this variant overshadowed some good news on the pandemic front. Two types of antiviral pills, one from Merck and the other Pfizer, are expected to be approved as treatments for the worst effects of COVID-19.

Rates of infection in Island County have stabilized but remain high. People are continuing to die. The county hit 50 deaths from COVID as of Nov. 25. That’s 21 deaths in the last five months alone.

Rates of infection are expected to increase following the Thanksgiving holiday. The youngest children still are unable to get the protection provided by vaccines.

COVID variants will continue to emerge and spread across the world as scientific breakthroughs continue to provide hope. Yet the future of the pandemic will ultimately depend on regular people and whether they decide to take simple actions, such as wearing masks in public and getting vaccinated. It’s a message that’s been said ad nauseam, perhaps, but it’s as valid as ever.