Editorial: Bring back the masks

Photo by Richard Harvey, via Flickr.

In June, when most of the state mandates related to coronavirus were lifted, Butte County was in pretty good shape. But by early August, due to the more virulent delta strain, the case count began creeping up.

Since then, our region has taken a steep turn for the worse. In fact, the current surge exceeds last winter’s. To wit, of the roughly 19,400 COVID-19 cases recorded in the county since the start of the pandemic, around 30 percent have occurred in the last two months. That’s a massive spike.

As a result, health-care facilities have been stretched thin. As we reported last month, Enloe Medical Center announced that, due to shortages, it would be forced to ration monoclonal antibodies, one of the most successful treatments for the virus. Meanwhile, Chico’s only hospital logged a new record: 95 COVID-19 patients hospitalized on Sept. 23. A year earlier, during the pandemic’s first local surge, the facility was treating 14 patients for the virus.

In short, the North State is in the throes of a medical crisis the likes of which it has never seen. Yet, from the look of things in the community, you’d never know it.

Indeed, Butte County is experiencing a major case of cognitive dissonance. A large share of locals seemingly live in a bizarro realm where they either believe the virus doesn’t exist or that they won’t be affected. We’ve seen it manifested in the proliferation of large gatherings, the continued resistance to vaccination and an aversion to mask-wearing.

Butte County Public Health has been beating the vaccination drum since supplies became available. Enloe has echoed the importance of inoculation, ramping up messages to the public in light of the surge.

Last week, Enloe Chief Medical Officer Dr. Marcia Nelson put into perspective the difference the hospital is seeing between its vaccinated and unvaccinated patients. The starkest she noted is that 92 percent of those in the intensive care unit are unvaccinated. That is, the vast majority of people who get severely ill or die are those who have eschewed inoculation. Last week, Enloe announced a COVID high of 20 people admitted to the ICU.

Still, less than 55 percent of eligible Butte County residents are fully vaccinated.

We’re much worse off today than during the entirety of the pandemic, yet many are taking far fewer precautions. It’s an absurd response that should signal a call to action from local leaders.

Unfortunately, public health officials and health workers have been left hanging by Gov. Gavin Newsom, who, until recently, prioritized his prospects in the recall election over helping rural counties whose medical facilities are struggling with a flood of cases.

To stem the tide locally, Butte County Public Health asked the Board of Supervisors at their last meeting (Sept. 28) about reinstating a local indoor mask mandate—an opportunity to back up health professionals and first responders. Ultimately, to our disappointment though not surprise, the three conservative supervisors effectively washed their hands of the matter, bullied by the “faith over fear” and “it’s a free country” crowd. We’re tired of those tropes and will stick with the evidence at hand.

Fact is, indoor public mask mandates work, as we’ve seen in other regions of the state that have wisely established such policy (roughly 50 percent of California counties currently have them). Retail establishments that regularly interface with the public note how it gives them the leverage they need to keep their patrons and employees safe.

Speaking of local shops, as this is our Best of Chico issue honoring comebacks, we want to thank those who’ve chosen the responsible route by asking patrons to mask up in their private businesses. For them, we’re especially grateful.

Bottom line is that we need a mask mandate. Ultimately, it’s the call of the Butte County health officer. The county soon will have a new one, the third since the pandemic began 18 months ago. We encourage the incoming doctor to waste no time establishing one post-haste. It’s long past time.

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