Covid: Will We learn from San Juan County, Washington?

by John M Repp

Over one million Americans died in the years long Covid-19 pandemic. It has been a trauma for many of us and our country failed miserably with absolute death numbers higher than any other country, and a per capita percentage higher than any other wealthy country. Trump’s response was incompetent and malevolent. He “suppressed scientific data, delayed testing, mocked and blocked mask-wearing, and convened mass gatherings where social distancing was impossible”. It cost him the election.

To put this whole event in context, we must say, prior to the pandemic, the population health of American citizens had deteriorated since about 1970 relative to other wealthy societies, as measured by longevity, maternal death rates, and infant mortality. We stand below fiftieth (50th) in most population health measures, while we were close to the top in the 1950’s.

In The Seattle Times on October 12, 2022, Danny Westneat wrote a column that discussed how one of the counties in Washington State was an exception, that only experienced two deaths late in the pandemic and had the lowest number of deaths per 100,000 inhabitants in our state. That county was San Juan County.

Yes, they had several natural advantages. San Juan County consist of islands and people must travel there by the Washington State Ferry System. The ferries continued to run all during the pandemic, although there were problems with getting enough crew, so some sailings were canceled. San Juan County also ranks second in per capita income in Washington State and is a more equal and more homogeneous population than many. It is almost 100% white. But there were public health measures and a conscientious group of people that explains why they did well.

They mandated the first mask mandate in the state, maybe in the nation. The San Juan County Health Director was Dr. Frank James and when he was told by the sheriff that the sheriff’s department could not enforce such a mandate, James turned to the business community, who were the pillars of the community. The business community recruited volunteers and started an aggressive contract tracing system.

And now, after several years of the pandemic, San Juan County is the most vaccinated county in Washington with 95% rates for seniors. I visited Orcas Island twice for events during the pandemic, and both times, my wife and I had to test ourselves and get a clean bill of health before we could attend the events.

Westneat calls attention to the lack of press coverage of this positive example. Dr. James told Westneat: “You’re the first person in the media who has called to ask us how we did it“. The San Juan County islanders felt like they were living in a refuge, and they were. But it was not physical. It had a lot to do with policy.

Even more amazing is that the political divide on the public health issues, the resistance against mask wearing and vaccinations, did not occur in San Juan County. The community wasn’t fractured there. Their success and the reasons for it should be more widely known.

There is a lesson here if our corporate media would bother to tell us about this case. Not all, but most of the suffering and death in the U.S. was preventable.