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News >  Spokane

State health officials see ‘plateau’ in numbers, but warn of ‘new normal’ going forward

April 14, 2020 Updated Tue., April 14, 2020 at 9:35 p.m.

Washington’s “COVID-19 activity appears to have plateaued,” State Health Officer Dr. Kathy Lofy told reporters Tuesday, but officials also warned of a “new normal” until a vaccine or treatment become available.

Though some parts of the state are experiencing increasing numbers of cases, the number of confirmed cases and deaths reported each day statewide appears to have declined compared with the apparent peak in mid-March.

More than 10,500 cases and 500 deaths had been reported statewide as of Monday.

In Spokane County, the total number of confirmed cases reached 278 and the number of deaths reached 17 after two more cases and two more deaths were reported Tuesday; 18 people are in local hospitals receiving treatment.

Other parts of Eastern Washington are having greater challenges with the virus. Yakima County has 573 confirmed cases, with 23 deaths, and the Tri-Cities has 390 cases, with 31 deaths.

Long-term care facilities have been hit hard, with 187 facilities in Washington reporting at least one confirmed case as of Monday. This count includes the Spokane Veterans Home, where a dozen residents and one staff member have tested positive. .

State health officials said more testing kits are on the way to Washington in the next week. Lofy said her goal is that anyone with COVID-like symptoms would be able to get tested.

In long-term care facilities, including those in Eastern Washington, accessing testing materials has been difficult. The Spokane Veterans Home is working to get more residents tested, but only about a third of residents have been.

State health officials said more testing in long-term care facilities could help stop the spread of the virus among vulnerable populations.

“In outbreak situations, where we know lots are exposed and some are sick, while some are not, those are situations where we would consider more broad testing,” Lofy said.

State Secretary of Health John Wiesman said health officials are discussing disease-control protocols and prevention practices with facilities, especially due to visitor restrictions that have been tightened since the coronavirus started to spread.

“We suspect that staff who might be asymptomatic or presymptomatic in some of these situations are bringing the infection in unknowingly, which is why it’s really, really important that staff are well trained,” Wiesman said.

For many facilities, access to personal protective equipment is a challenge but also the key to ensuring that staff members can safely take care of their residents.

Raquel Bono, a retired Navy vice admiral who is leading the health care system response to COVID-19 in Washington, said the majority of the state supply of personal protective equipment is coming from procurement, while about a quarter has come from the federal stockpile and some donations.

Surgical masks, N95 respirators and gowns have been the hardest materials to come by, and Washington is awaiting shipments of more than 125 million masks.

With numbers steadying statewide, the urge to reopen society lingers – but state health officials warned that even if restrictions are lifted slightly, Washington residents will be returning to a “new normal.”

“We will not return to what we knew before COVID-19 for many, many months and probably not until we have a vaccine,” Wiesman cautioned on Tuesday.

He mentioned several measures that could continue and be adapted into normal life, like physical distancing, meeting by video instead of in person, wearing masks in close spaces and not shaking hands.

“It won’t just go away, and we won’t be able to return to normal activity,” Wiesman said. “It will be a new normal, one much more aware of the safety and bio-security of each of us, and it will be a new way of acting for quite some time.”

Gov. Jay Inslee’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order is in effect through May 4 and health officials said they are looking at more than a few data points as they begin to think about reopening parts of society and businesses. In the meantime, Washington is partnering with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to do a randomized survey of people to see if they have developed antibodies to COVID-19.

“This is helpful because it lets us know how many people are immune,” Lofy said.

Spokane County Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz warned residents against emails or marketing schemes about antibody tests, however, noting the Food and Drug Administration has approved just one test for research purposes.

“I think they are promising, but right now the science is still out on how to best use them,” Lutz said.

Arielle Dreher's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is primarily funded by the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, with additional support from Report for America and members of the Spokane community. These stories can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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