Details about the first shipment of COVID-19 vaccine expected in North Carolina next week are a bright light at the end of one of the darkest tunnels this state has experienced in generations.

Just lately, it’s become even darker Immediately around us in the tunnel. COVID-19 metrics continue to worsen in Wilkes County and across the state. In the first seven days of December, COVID-19-related deaths of six Wilkes County residents were reported for a total of 57.

Think of all the Wilkes families impacted by the 57 deaths and the suffering of those who remain hospitalized — typically over two dozen Wilkes residents in recent weeks.

More than 5,000 North Carolinians have lost their lives from this virus since the state’s first death on March 12 of this year. Those who still say COVID-19 isn’t much worse than the flu should consider that just under 1,500 North Carolinians died from the flu in the last 10 years.

The pace of Wilkes residents testing positive for COVID-19 appeared to slow just briefly recently but has picked back up now to where it was previously. The number of Wilkes residents who have tested positive since the pandemic started in March will surpass 3,000 this week.

It was only a month ago that Wilkes passed the 2,000 mark, which was roughly half the time it took to get from 1,000 to 2,000.

No one has suffered from the pandemic more than residents of long-term care facilities, and in the majority of instances this wasn’t due to inadequate quality of care. Restrictions imposed to help protect lives from COVID-19 have greatly increased the isolation and loneliness they experience.

Appropriately, residents and staff of long-term care facilities will be among the first vaccinated. It’s also appropriate that health care workers and others in jobs crucial for the public’s well-being will be among the first.

Unfortunately, we’re told that vaccinations for the general public won’t start until January or February and even with that we can imagine it will be on toward spring before a majority of North Carolinians have been vaccinated. Even after being vaccinated, people will need to keep wearing their masks and observing social distancing for a few more weeks.

The point is that we’re far from the point of it being appropriate to relax COVID-19 defenses. In fact, just the opposite is true.

It’s like a foot race and now is the time, with the finish line in sight, to pick up the pace and be even more conscientious about wearing a mask, observing social distancing, washing hands and avoiding crowds.

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