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Immunity level came at the cost of lives

Estimates from Oregon Health Science University that our two-county region leads the state in immunity to COVID-19 are reassuring — to a point. The news is not an excuse to let down our guard, and does not justify continuing to refuse vaccination, although there will be those who make that claim.

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OHSU estimates that just 14% of residents of Jackson and Josephine counties remain vulnerable to contracting the novel coronavirus — the lowest percentage in the state. That’s an accomplishment, but at what cost?

The reason these two counties lead the state is because more residents have already had COVID, and those who survived it are now considered to have some level of immunity to the virus. And that’s because the vaccination rate here still lags behind the state as a whole.

What the numbers do not reflect is how many people got COVID and didn’t gain immunity because they died. They paid the price.

In Jackson and Josephine counties, COVID deaths stand at 473 out of a combined population of 309,800. Compare that with Multnomah County, with nearly 813,000 population but 655 deaths. Or Lane County, with 382,000 population and just 273 deaths.

The most important number right now is not the estimated immunity level but the proportion of intensive care beds occupied by COVID patients. This region ranked second among the state’s seven health care regions at the end of September, when 70% of ICU beds were occupied by COVID-19 patients. Clearly, our first-in-the-state ranking for immunity is not enough to keep infected people out of the hospital.

Some of those patients will survive the illness and emerge with immunity. Some of those may have a long recovery ahead, and health effects that can linger for years.

If they had been vaccinated, chances are very good that they would either not have COVID or, even if they had a breakthrough case, they would not be occupying an ICU bed or be hospitalized at all. They, too, are paying a price.

Another important number to keep in mind: Assuming OHSU’s estimates are accurate, the number of residents in this region still susceptible to COVID-19 amounts to 87.6 people for every available hospital bed. Not every one of those people will contract the virus, but they could lessen the risk to themselves and the burden on the health care system by getting the vaccine.

At this point, we have no confidence that many remaining vaccine refusers can be convinced to change their minds. But perhaps a few will come to realize that, while this region has reached a milestone in moving through the pandemic, we did it the hard way.