While the COVID-19 vaccine is now open to the general public ages 16 and older, don't go without a mask just yet, as officials note the continuing importance of adhering to the five commitments. (Photo by Bria Light/Telluride Daily Planet)

The other day, I was chatting with a friend ― predictably, perhaps, given the topic’s tendency to dominate conversations with friends, family and complete strangers alike for the past year ― about the pandemic. In my mind, the pandemic had been easing, with rapidly rising numbers of vaccinated people and single-digit numbers of local cases for weeks now spelling out the slow return to eventual normalcy. My friend pointed out, however, that the current national figures on daily COVID-19 deaths are not that rosy, with New York Times data reporting the United States was still averaging a daily death rate of 720 individuals from COVID-19 as of April 21.

A look at the graph of this data shows a sharp decline in mortality rates since the dark days of winter, when for over a month during January and February Americans died of the coronavirus and its complications at a seven-day average of over 3,000 people per day, with several days spiking to over 4,000 and 5,000 daily deaths. But, despite the sharply dropping curve of the graph, the curve throughout the month of April has begun flattening out, back down to mortality rates roughly equivalent to last summer.

This got me thinking. Why, if just over a quarter of Americans are fully vaccinated and another sizable percentage of Americans have already had COVID ― though precise figures on this are elusive ― are so many people still dying?

Dr. Jeffrey Kocher, an infectious disease specialist and local resident, helped put the numbers in perspective. Nationally, he said, seasonal temperatures, vaccination rates and public health responses play a role in the overall picture painted by the numbers we’re seeing at present.

“Warmth and UV light from the sun help to inactivate the virus quicker, and we’re still at a point when much of the country is cold enough for people to be mostly inside,” he explained. “We’ve also relaxed a lot of the controls across the country, so we’re seeing rates that are similar to last summer. These rates are going to go down, and they’re going to go down pretty quickly as more people are going to go outside.”

He noted, however, that it’s a fluid situation with many moving parts, making short-term predictions a tricky business, and vaccine hesitancy plays a role in the current numbers.

“It’s a good bet that roughly 20 percent of Americans are not going to take the vaccine,” he estimated, a figure that translates to over 65 million people for the U.S. population of approximately 328 million.

An unfortunate part of the reality imposed by the pandemic, therefore, is that people will continue to die from COVID-19. As a recent New York Times article examining the psychology of risk as it relates to coronavirus fears stated, “Victory over COVID will not involve its elimination.”

Kocher expressed a similar sentiment, pointing to the annual deaths caused by diseases like pneumonia, as well as accidental deaths from car crashes or ski accidents. Risk, and the human choice to participate in activities that carry a risk of death, are not going to disappear anytime soon. Rather, it’s a staple of the human experience and of the landscape of our psychology.

In a country of over 320 million people, the current average of 700-plus deaths per day due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic represents a continuing tragic loss of life but is also a reflection of the declining numbers of cases and deaths nationwide as vaccines boost immunity, especially to hospitalization and death.

Still, while local numbers remain low ― there were four active cases reported in San Miguel County as of press time Friday ― indicating a pandemic in decline, it’s not over. Officials and experts, including Kocher, cautioned that it remains important to be mindful of mask wearing and social distancing when socializing in situations in which not everyone is fully vaccinated. We’re doing well, he said, and we’ll continue to do even better, but it’s thanks to masks, vaccines and the response of our public health officials.

And if you haven’t yet, Kocher added, “Go out and get your vaccine.”

Grace Franklin, the county’s public health director, noted in a recent news release that especially as residents return from spring break travels, it’s too soon to let your guard down entirely, even if you’re vaccinated.

“As our county vaccination rate continues to increase, we want to remind the public that even if you are fully protected after vaccination, please continue to practice the five commitments in public and around those whose vaccine status remains unknown,” she said. “I am confident our community will continue to rise to the challenge, so we can end strong in this fight against COVID.”