Premature death in Pacific County

Even before covid-19 came along, Pacific County’s unique risk factors were shaving many years off local lives. The same factors — things like diabetes and obesity — put us at much greater risk to die from coronavirus.

An analysis the Chinook Observer shared with online readers last week generated 100 comments, ranging across the spectrum from the U.S. shouldn’t have gone into covid-19 lockdown in the first place, to how obvious it is that Pacific County residents are particularly at risk and must protect ourselves.

The analysis by the esteemed Economist magazine — whose high-end expertise extends far beyond the business world — primarily focuses on how dangerous it will be for many counties in the U.S. South to disregard warnings about novel coronavirus.

“America does not face one covid-19 crisis, but rather dozens of different ones. A few places have been walloped; others remain unscathed. So far, SARS-CoV-2 has claimed most of its victims in areas where it has spread the fastest,” the Economist reported, referring to covid-19’s formal name. “Lockdowns have geographically contained most outbreaks. However, once social distancing is relaxed, the virus will accelerate its spread, and could infect a majority of Americans. If that happens, the places it hits hardest may not be those it struck first. Instead, the vulnerability of local populations will determine its death toll in each region.”

Places with older residents and more diabetes, heart disease and smoking have higher case-fatality rates, with income also playing a role, the Economist said. “Counties with lots of poor … people tend to have more health problems, less social distancing and fewer ICU beds.”

Such counties are sadly common in the states of the old Confederacy but rare in the West. In fact, the Economist highlighted just three western counties with the risk factors for relatively high rates of death from a protracted covid-19 pandemic: Pacific County, Curry County, Oregon, and Sierra County, New Mexico.

Risk factors

This is based on statistical modeling, not predestination, so people are right to regard it with some skepticism. It’s not like the Economist sent a reporter here to observe conditions on the ground. But for anyone who spends much time looking at Pacific County demographics, it’s clear that our population is extraordinarily vulnerable because of the exact risk factors that have been clearly identified as leading to greater chances to die if infected with coronavirus.

We have, in the first place, among the oldest populations in the region. Nearly one-third of Pacific County’s population is age 65-plus. This means more than 5,000 residents are in the age group that accounts for around 90% of Washington state covid fatalities. And while it isn’t true that Pacific County is the poorest in the state, we are by a variety of measurements in the bottom third, with areas of deep economic struggle once you get beyond the scenic seashore, riverbank and bay.

Long-term illnesses and self-destructive behaviors also make many of us into sitting ducks for a deadly respiratory virus to which we lack all immunity. As a small rural county, we tend not to have very comprehensive and up-to-date data about health risks, but periodic “County Health Rankings & Roadmaps” by the Population Health Institute come close to providing a picture of why we need to be cautious. See the latest report for yourself at https://tinyurl.com/Pacific-Snapshot.

Even before the pandemic, Pacific ranked near worse in the state in terms of premature deaths. Many more of us than average die younger than we should due to cancer, heart disease, accidents and chronic lower respiratory diseases. About 15% of us suffer from diabetes, compared to 7% in the best-performing American counties and 9% statewide. Thirty-four percent of us are obese, compared to 28% statewide. Twenty-five percent of us are physically inactive, compared to 17% statewide. Our rate of smoking is higher than the state and national averages.

Ten percent of Pacific County residents lack any form of health insurance, and we have only about a quarter as many primary care physicians per person as the state as a whole.

What next?

Mirroring the debate elsewhere in the nation and world, reader comments and letters to the editor lead us to think a clear majority of county residents prefer to be careful when it comes to reopening the economy. On the other hand, a significant portion of the resident population are beset with deepening financial hardships and want to quickly relax state-mandated closures of businesses, along with government-regulated activities like fishing and park visitation.

It’s easy to sympathize with most sides on this issue — with the exception of those who stubbornly think coronavirus is no big deal. They are woefully mistaken. This Wednesday marks the two-month anniversary of the first covid death in Washington. We will be approaching 800 deaths in those two months. This nears the total combined number of influenza deaths in the state in the past four years. Two months of covid deaths far outstrips the annual average of 531 Washington state traffic fatalities. There are plenty of other causes of death that are bigger than covid, but that doesn’t mean we can shrug our shoulders when a brand new major killer pops up.

The fact is simple: We aren’t going to suddenly reopen everything and pretend covid can’t kill us. Nor are most of us willing to stay at home 99% of the time for the next year or more while a vaccine is being developed. Considering the high vulnerability of Pacific County’s population, we must strive for a middle ground that keeps older people and anyone with underlying conditions as safe as possible, while selectively resuming other parts of the economy in coming months.

The details of such compromises depend on health experts, and will be subject to readjustments if we start seeing more local infections. We must insist on careful consideration of our unique local circumstances, and not get lumped in with what makes sense for Seattle. In some respects, more caution is mandatory. We can’t afford a crush of July 4 visitors from King County and Vancouver. In other ways, we may insist on more latitude to do things like reopening schools.

Whatever we do must keep our older residents as safe as possible. They are valued, essential citizens. We cannot afford to lose them before their time.

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