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Vermont still ranks as the No. 1 best state in the nation for handling the coronavirus pandemic and the disease it spawns, COVID-19, touting its low rate of 42 virus deaths per 100,000 population. Florida and South Dakota seem tied for the worst, both with an average of 205 virus deaths per 100,000.

West Virginia is somewhere in the middle of the pack with 168 deaths per 100,000 residents and total deaths edging past 3,150 out of a population of 1.8 million souls.

Even in Vermont and places previously cited as exemplary in coping with COVID-19, such as Hawaii, Iceland and Israel, the virus has been surging and causing local health officials to warn against easing up on masking indoors.

At the other end of the spectrum we have witnessed South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem applauding the Aug. 6-15 motorcycle rally at Sturgis of nearly half a million largely unmasked and who knows how many unvaccinated. And Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida is still trying to enforce his mandate against mandates by school districts of masks for their classrooms.

Noem and DeSantis stand accused of aiding and abetting the spread of the virus and their states’ rising death tolls by their steadfast refusal to recognize the severity of the pandemic and join other governors in sounding the alarm.

Here in West Virginia, Gov. Jim Justice claims, “I’m doing everything I can to hold us together,” meaning, apparently, he is shying away from issuing another statewide masking mandate for all indoor activities in public and commercial spaces.

He has expressed dismay over local school district board members receiving death threats when they have voted to impose mask mandates for classrooms. That, however, is as far as he has taken it to chastise anti-masking forces who double as diehard Trump fans and who rail against mask mandates as a violation of their freedoms.

This column gave Justice high marks at the outset of the pandemic. The governor shut down bars and restaurants before the state had logged even a single death from COVID-19. And he was the first governor to ensure that all nursing home staff and patients were vaccinated against the virus.

Lately, it has seemed, Justice has been acting less courageously, trying to assuage the anti-vaxxers and the anti-maskers by not ordering any new shutdowns or mandating masks for indoor activities. Labor Day picnics and other festivities brought swarms of people together in close quarters, and with high school and college football stadiums packed tight, we risk providing the virus with superspreader events to help it thrive.

Currently, we must contend not only with the highly infectious delta variant of coronavirus but also with a new enemy, the mu variant, recorded as prevalent in all 50 states. Little is known yet about this variant, but we all must be watchful.

Dr. Irwin Redlener, a public health disaster specialist at Columbia University, says Americans often are “seduced by wishful thinking and a level of complacency” in regard to protecting themselves against the virus. Too many of us entertained the idea that “the battle is won” and we could all return to partying as usual.

We need to walk that attitude back. Otherwise, autumn 2021 could prove deadlier than any of us would like.

John Patrick Grace formerly covered health care for The Greensboro (N.C.) News and Record. He encourages all readers to get vaccinated against COVID and wear masks indoors when in close proximity to strangers.

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