Columbia County is moving in the wrong direction. It will take everyone working together to get on the right track.

PMG FILE PHOTO - Medical workers wear protective masks, gowns and face shields to protect from infection.We've reached a critical point in this coronavirus pandemic — the point at which we can see the end of it, but it's not yet within reach.

Last week, restrictions for many Oregonians were tightened again after weeks of trending in a positive direction. The winter surge in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths fell precipitously in February and March. But now, the numbers point toward a spring surge — one that likely could have been avoided, and which can still be blunted before it grows out of control.

Here in Columbia County, we just narrowly escaped going back into a "high risk" designation after just two weeks at "moderate risk." In fact, were it not for how recently Columbia County businesses were cleared to open up to 50% capacity, we would be right back in "high risk" again right now; were it not for a new statewide trigger as well, we'd be back in "extreme risk," with no indoor dining, recreation, exercise and so on.

Read our April 6, 2021, story on the two-week caution period.

It's not just cases, which have exploded to more than 100 per week in a county of a little over 50,000 people. Test positivity has skyrocketed, too. The situation in Columbia County has suddenly become very concerning.

This isn't happening in a vacuum.

We have been living with the presence of the coronavirus in our community since February 2020. For some of us, it's been more than a year since we've seen older family members, gathered with friends, attended a sporting event or a concert or a play, or even shook another person's hand. Some of us have gotten sick; some of us have gotten very sick.

The end isn't within reach, but it's within sight. Small wonder we're rushing to get there. Unfortunately, many of us have been going about it the wrong way.

We need to keep masking up. We know that wearing masks can be uncomfortable and that it doesn't feel natural. But the simple act of having a little piece of fabric over your nose and mouth can protect you and others, and even if you think it's silly, it puts others at ease.

Remember, many people have underlying medical conditions that put them at a greater risk of serious health complications if they get sick. Those conditions aren't always obvious from the outside. Show people the consideration and grace you would like them to show you. Wearing a mask may be a mild inconvenience for you, but it could be life or death for the person next to you in line if they have heart disease, reduced lung function or another preexisting condition.

Vaccines are turning the tide against COVID-19, and they will be critical to ending this pandemic. While the pace of vaccinations in Oregon has lagged behind many other states, it has nonetheless picked up considerably over the past several weeks, and eligibility will open to all Oregonians age 16 and older by next Monday, April 19.

However, the mere presence of vaccines in our community doesn't mean it's less dangerous to risk infection — or infecting others — with the coronavirus.

If you've been fully vaccinated — as in, it's been at least two weeks since your final dose of the vaccine — then your risk level is about as low as it can get. There's some evidence that mutant strains of the virus have a greater chance of being able to infect healthy cells in a vaccinated person than the original "wild type" virus, but those strains remain rare in Oregon, and experts believe the vaccines still confer a high level of protection, especially against severe illness.

Still, no vaccine is 100% effective, and there have been what the Oregon Health Authority calls "breakthrough" cases in which a fully vaccinated person tests positive for COVID-19. Thankfully, so far it appears these cases are rare, and authorities say many have been asymptomatic.

For those of us who haven't been fully vaccinated yet, COVID-19 is as unpleasant and insidious as ever. Your elderly aunt and your teacher neighbor having received their last dose a couple weeks ago means they're far less likely to get sick or infect others, but their vaccination status doesn't mean you can't catch the virus, especially if you've been letting your guard down since the worst of the winter surge passed.

It may be a cliché, but the choices we make right now are vital.

Within weeks, everyone who wants to be vaccinated will be able to get vaccinated. We encourage you to get your vaccine appointment scheduled as soon as you are able.

You may believe that since you're young and healthy, the virus is of less concern to you. But getting vaccinated won't just protect you — it will protect others with whom you come in contact, including your parents and older relatives, friends, coworkers, neighbors, parishioners, and service workers.

There's no need to worry about "taking someone else's spot," either. Vaccine supply has been limited, but it's expanding dramatically. That's why the state can promise that if you want to be vaccinated, you can be vaccinated — there are enough doses to go around. That wasn't the case just a few weeks ago, but things have changed.

You may also have questions about the vaccines, given that they were developed in record time and with a different approach than many other vaccines. That's not unreasonable. We encourage you to do the research. Serious side effects are very rare, and regulators are confident Pfizer and Moderna's vaccines are safe and effective, having undergone rigorous testing and large-scale studies.

In the meantime, and even after you get your first dose, keep on keeping your distance, limiting interactions outside your own household and avoiding risky activities. If we all get our shots, and we stay conscious of the fact this virus is still here and still nasty, and we continue to mask up and practice proper hygiene in public settings, we will be able to banish "social distancing" to the dustbin of history sooner rather than later. We can get past this.

But if we take our eye off the ball now, we're going to find ourselves trudging back to the dugout, and it will be a long, frustrating wait for another turn at the plate. We have an opportunity, right here, right now, to finally get COVID-19 under control and get our lives back to normal. We have to take that opportunity — by getting vaccinated as soon as possible, continuing to practice the behaviors that have kept us safe and kept case counts in Oregon relatively low, and respecting the ability of this virus to throw us a nasty curveball.

This isn't over yet. There's a good chance that it can be over soon. Both of those things are true, and it's up to us what happens next.

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