By JEFF KUHR

Last week, Mesa County had a death of a child due to COVID-19. Children under the age of 12 cannot be vaccinated, so they have to put their trust in us to protect them, as do the individuals who cannot be vaccinated because of certain health conditions.

Choosing whether to get vaccinated isn’t just about us as individuals. It’s true that 80% of us who contract COVID-19 will have mild symptoms or no symptoms at all. Our choice to get vaccinated also has to be about protecting our families and neighbors, especially those who can’t get a vaccine due to age or health reasons.

There is a general misconception that the vaccination only protects the individual who gets it. Two weeks ago, the Centers for Disease Control announced that people who’ve been fully vaccinated no longer have to wear masks in most situations. Reading between the lines, this was the first time the CDC had officially acknowledged that the vaccine not only provides protection to the person who’s been vaccinated, but also to the people they are around. With all we now know, the best way for us to get past this pandemic is for us to come together as a community and protect one another by getting the COVID-19 vaccination.

For the past 18 months, we have endured restrictions and have followed CDC recommendations, all while looking forward to the day when we can get back to normal. The announcement of a vaccine against the virus provided a clear path to the end; there was hope. Without the vaccine, it would have likely taken another year or two for the virus to run its course. Unfortunately, five months after the vaccine rolled out, Mesa County is experiencing some of the highest COVID rates in the country.

We are a hot spot for COVID-19

Last week, our county had the nation’s second-highest seven-day rate for COVID cases among communities with populations between 50,000 and 250,000. Deaths in Mesa County due to COVID-19 have increased by 150% in the past month. Since Jan. 1, there have been 321 hospitalizations, among which only 12 people were fully vaccinated. We’ve also seen 92 deaths, among which only four people were fully vaccinated. Our local data and a growing body of evidence demonstrate that vaccines are offering similar protection in real-world conditions as they did in clinical trials. Not only does the vaccine provide protection against contracting COVID-19, but it can also provide protection against infecting others, reducing disease spread in the community.

Here’s a post you may have seen on Instagram: “If I don’t take the vaccine, I’m at risk for COVID. If I do take the vaccine, I’m still at risk for COVID, PLUS I’m at risk for permanent vaccine side effects. Therefore I’m reducing my risk by not taking the vaccine. That’s the real science.”

The three COVID-19 vaccines authorized in the U.S. have now been administered to nearly 166 million people, so we’re way beyond the trial phases. The true “real science” shows the vaccines reduce the likelihood of infection by 66% to 95%, and they reduce the likelihood that you’ll get seriously ill if you contract COVID-19 after being vaccinated. There is no evidence that vaccines cause permanent side effects. So really, the only risks we’re faced with are those related to continued hospitalizations and deaths in Mesa County.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this column, this week we recorded the county’s first pediatric death — a female in the age range of 10 to 19; sick with the B.1.617.2 (India) variant. When she contracted COVID-19, she was not eligible for a vaccine due to age. In Colorado, 70% of the COVID-19 cases are from variant strains; we believe variant strains are even more prevalent in Mesa County. Among the local cases in which the source of transmission is known, more than 60% contracted the virus from family members. Getting the COVID-19 vaccine is a personal decision, but please understand you’re not the only one impacted by that decision. When considering whether to get the COVID vaccination, please think about protecting your family, your friends, your neighbors, and your coworkers. There are so many people in our community who cannot get vaccinated, and they trust you to protect them. Let’s come together and do this for each other.

Jeff Kuhr, Ph.D., is the executive director of Mesa County Public Health.