Gov. Jay Inslee flew to Brewster Thursday, an Okanogan County town of 2,300 people, 518 of whom have tested positive for COVID-19.
There, Inslee met with community leaders and pressed his message that residents should adhere to masking and distancing directives to help bring the high infection rate down.
“The thing we need most is the use of masks and social distancing in the social settings,” Inslee said.
While Brewster is the epicenter of the rural county’s COVID-19 problem, Okanogon County as a whole has struggled with the virus, which has infected 885 people, including the more than 500 in Brewster, according to the Okanogan County Public Health.
Six of the nine county residents who have died from the virus were from Brewster.
Inslee, who said his meetings were productive, also mobilized the National Guard to conduct testing in Okanogan County at various sites, free of charge for residents, over the next few days.
Okanogan, Chelan and Douglas counties now have the highest incidence rates of the virus in the state.
There are 519 cases per 100,000 residents in Okanogan County, which is down from the peak of more than 1,000 cases per 100,000 residents in late July.
Inslee acknowledged that agricultural work settings in these counties, including orchards and fruit-packing plants, present easy environments for the virus to spread. He signed a proclamation on Thursday that will enable all agricultural workers to access paid sick leave, should they develop symptoms of COVID-19 or get the virus, regardless of their eligibility for state unemployment insurance or immigration status.
The governor used federal funds to create a $3 million fund to provide paid leave to food production workers who have to stay home while they isolate.
The state Department of Commerce will distribute the money and reimburse employers for the sick leave they pay.
Using federal coronavirus aid money, the governor also established a $40 million fund earlier this week for those not eligible for unemployment insurance.
State changes negative test counting method
The Washington Department of Health announced this week that it is are changing the way it counts negative tests in the state.
The system currently weeds out duplicates of both positive and negative test results to ensure that someone who tests positive or negative multiple times is only counted once.
Going forward, however, all negative tests will be recorded, even if they involve the same person testing negative multiple times.
“We believe the new approach will help us better understand trends and new results,” Secretary of Health John Wiesman told reporters Wednesday.
The governor said that changing how the state counts negative test results will not affect the ongoing efforts to combat the virus.
“We are confident that we know the general nature of the positivity rate, which has been relatively stable, and the delta between getting the exact number is not really large enough to affect our decision-making,” Inslee said Thursday.
Wiesman said the new approach will give the state the most accurate picture of how many COVID-19 tests are being conducted in the state.
The department estimates it will take about a week to update its data reporting system.
Case counts level off
The number of new COVID-19 cases in the Inland Northwest continued to plateau on Thursday, when the Spokane Regional Health District confirmed 56 new cases and the five-county Panhandle Health District reported 55 new cases.
Spokane County now has seen 4,721 cases. The health district estimates that 59% of those cases are recovered.
Five more county residents died from the virus as of Thursday, for a total of 92 deaths. Seventy-one patients are receiving treatment for COVID-19 in local hospitals, including 41 county residents.
The Panhandle Health District has identified 2,385 confirmed cases. About 1,500 of those cases are considered “closed” by the health district.
Twenty-five Panhandle residents are hospitalized with the virus, and 24 residents have died from COVID-19.
S-R Reporter Jim Camden contributed to this story.
Arielle Dreher's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story 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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