By now, the storyline, and the statistics, are almost mind-numbingly familiar.

In rural counties of Maine, as in those of neighboring states, COVID rates have gone off the charts amid the worst wave of the pandemic. Hospitals are overwhelmed, health networks are overstretched, and the National Guard has been called out.

Yet we haven’t focused squarely on the most meaningful numbers of all. The unvaccinated are nine times as likely to be hospitalized as the vaccinated — and 14 times as likely to die.

Without doing any complicated math, we know that dozens, if not hundreds of Mainers will die unnecessary deaths in the weeks and months to come, adding to a fearful toll that has more than doubled even since vaccines became widely available.

What are we to do as a state, and as communities within Maine?

There’s a temptation among the long-vaccinated to feel contempt, even anger at those who still won’t get the shot — which is safe, free and available. Those relative few are creating limbo: We simply don’t know when we’ll be able to go back to something like the way we lived before.

We ought to resist that temptation. The unvaccinated need compassion and help, not condemnation.

Those who do deserve condemnation are those who create an atmosphere of fear and hostility around life-saving public health measures — especially those who cry “freedom” while the virus still stalks the land.

Getting the shot, for those not yet subject to mandates, is still — and must be — an individual choice. But crying “wolf” falsely ought to be seen for what it is: incitement, bound to create more death and misery.

Ron DeSantis, Florida’s Republican governor, is among the worst offenders, asking unvaccinated law enforcement officers to come south for sign-on bonuses, and fighting tooth and nail against school mask mandates enacted locally.

But Republicans across the nation, including Maine, still seem to see their role as criticizing sensible and necessary public health steps, even while providing no real alternatives.

And since this really is a “pandemic of the unvaccinated” — however much the term makes people cringe — we must redouble our efforts to get, if not everyone, then nearly everyone vaccinated.

It would be helpful to know exactly what we’re aiming for — what the goal should be. Clearly, 70% vaccination rates, which Maine has overall, is not enough to create “herd immunity,” as was once hoped.

Yet public health officials have turned cautious. Still under assault — a nationally syndicated columnist just attacked Dr. Anthony Fauci for statements he made in the first week of the pandemic, nearly two years ago — the specialists haven’t been clearly addressing “next steps.”

President Biden can do that, along with elected officials right on down to the local level.

With COVID spreading even among children under five, who aren’t yet vaccine-eligible, we ought to create some new, clear targets — national and state — then work to meet them.

The reopening of vaccine clinics, such as the ones at the Augusta Armory, are helpful, but more is needed. In some ways, it seems there’s nothing new to be said, but we may have forgotten that repeating the message, and finding new examples to make it convincing, can work.

Rather than continuing to see this as an individual choice, we can try something that Americans often resist: putting the community first, and, while respecting individual choice, emphasizing that we can’t put the pandemic behind us without greater use of the life- and health-saving tools we have right now.

When Gov. Janet Mills introduced her order activating the National Guard, she had temperate and moderate words to go with it. Maybe we also need the governor, and legislative leaders, to call for new efforts, by all elected officials, to do more to save lives by word, and example.

Eventually, the virus will burn itself out, but it will continue to produce variants reaching still more vulnerable humans. Returning to normal will take a lot more than falling caseloads.

We’ll wonder, years from now, how Americans — and people around the world — could have allowed a scourge to remain unchecked for so long, simply because of their existing political and ideological preoccupations.

The sheer pragmatism of getting infectious disease under control as rapidly and effectively as possible will stand out as undeniable common sense.

Yet before that history is written, and recalled, wouldn’t it be better if we acted now? Otherwise, these days will haunt us until the end of our own.

Douglas Rooks, a Maine editor, commentator and reporter since 1984, is the author of three books. His first, “Statesman: George Mitchell and the Art of the Possible,” is now out in paperback.  He welcomes comment at [email protected]


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