Wallowa County is experiencing a sharp increase in COVID-19 cases, including people with and without symptoms. At a regional and national level, hospitalizations are also rising dramatically, making clear that increased testing is not the sole reason for increasing cases. These trends have serious implications for health and health care in Wallowa County.

What are likely scenarios for future cases in Wallowa County? It’s too early to say if the local rate of growth is “exponential.” However, a useful metric for any forecast is the doubling time for local cases. As of Nov. 13, Wallowa County cases have doubled in 5.3 weeks.

Person-to-person transmission is the cause of increasing infections. Interruption of transmission by handwashing, physical distancing and mask wearing are the methods known to “flatten the curve.” If such protective health measures aren’t followed and if the same doubling rate continues through early March 2021, we could expect a total of 550 local cases and 12 deaths (using a nationwide fatality rate of 2.3% of cases). That number of cases is equivalent to one of every 13 people in the county. Many low-population Western counties have experienced even shorter doubling times of just three to four weeks. If these shorter times were to happen here, cumulative cases would surpass 1,000 by early March, with the potential for more than 20 local deaths.

We all hoped COVID-19 wouldn’t invade our remote community. We hoped we could live our lives as usual. It can be tough to do what public health officials have advised. Wearing masks can be uncomfortable, and it’s awkward when we’re with others who don’t wear them. Keeping “social distance” from friends, extended family and associates feels even worse because we have business to conduct, or we just miss those with whom we should be closest.

We’re happiest in small groups of like-minded individuals and outsiders can be labeled “foe” and treated as such. Information that conflicts with our beliefs can be readily dismissed as fake news. It’s easier and more comforting to accept that which confirms what we already believe than to reconsider our own views. Many of us independent-minded Wallowans don’t appreciate government agencies — or anybody — telling us what to do.

The belief that COVID-19 is a “hoax,” that “masks don’t work,” or that it will all “blow over with the election” might have seemed reasonable in June or July. But, to still embrace these notions confirms the folk wisdom that “What gets us in trouble is what we know for sure that just ain’t so.”

Scientific facts are cold and hard. We can choose to believe them, or we can ignore them and face the consequences. Gov. Brown’s “two-week freeze” starts today and is a statewide effort to deal with these new harsh realities.

We all have a role to play if we hope to keep our businesses and schools open and prevent our healthcare system from getting overwhelmed. Changing cultural norms takes time, but we’ll succeed if we’re adaptable and persistent.

What’s the average citizen to do? Lead by example by following the CDC’s public health guidelines. Don’t lecture, argue with, or put others on the defensive. If you feel comfortable doing so, diplomatically ask others to wear a mask, or keep their distance. Ask business owners to please require masks for employees and customers. Participate in open-forum meetings and conversations. Trust and work with local health care leaders who will always support our community in reducing and preventing transmission.

“If we do the things that are simple public health measures, then soaring (cases) will level and start to come down. You add to that the help of a vaccine, we can turn this around. It is not futile.” Dr. Anthony Fauci, Nov. 13, 2020.

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Red Brockman is a retired research microbiologist and Ron Polk is a retired professor, both of whom live near Lostine. Miles McFall is a retired professor who lives near Joseph.

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