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Washington case counts on the decline; Inslee issues more protections for agricultural workers

Gov. Jay Inslee meets with the press on Thursday, June 25, 2020, in the WSU Spokane Pharmaceutical & Biomedical Sciences Building.   (Colin Mulvany/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Gov. Jay Inslee issued a proclamation on Wednesday which requires farms and produce-packing facilities to test their employees for COVID-19 if nine workers test positive in a two-week window.

The proclamation follows Inslee’s visit to Brewster, a town where more than 500 people have tested positive for the virus, including more than 100 workers at Gebbers Farms, where an outbreak led to three deaths of workers.

Secretary of Health John Wiesman issued an order directly to Gebbers Farms to test all of their workers. The state is providing testing supplies to make that happen in the next couple weeks. At the end of July, Gebbers had more than 100 workers test positive but still had not conducted facility-wide testing of its workers. Wiesman called the Gebbers outbreak a “serious situation,” noting that future outbreaks at these types of facilities need to be curtailed sooner with more rapid testing.

Wiesman said the party that pays for the testing will depend on the situation.

“Generally when we have these kinds of outbreaks, public health works closely with the employers and often times does pick up the testing costs,” he said. “And we have employers that have picked up the testing costs in the past because they thought it was the right thing to do and wanted to be engaged.”

Central Washington remains a hot spot for the virus, in part due to outbreaks in fruit-packing and agricultural settings, and Inslee’s proclamation lays out a safety plan with additional steps employers must take to ensure that housing and work environments for workers are safe.

Statewide, cases are declining and have been since mid-July, and many counties are plateauing or declining in their case counts. Emergency department visits of patients with COVID-like symptoms also are declining, which State Health Officer Kathy Lofy said indicates that there are fewer people sick with COVID-like symptoms.

Headed for a ‘downward trend’?

The Spokane Regional Health District confirmed 43 new cases on Wednesday. Three more residents have died due to COVID-19, bringing the county total to 108 deaths from the virus.

Case counts have dropped fairly dramatically in recent days, although Spokane County Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz said that the amount of testing being conducted locally has stayed consistent through June and July, as well as in recent weeks.

“If you look at the curve, there was a plateau towards the end of July, and we do seem to be on that downward trend, which is encouraging,” Lutz told reporters on Wednesday.

The rate of positive tests among all COVID-19 tests for Spokane County is not available currently because the state is updating its testing data. The Department of Health is changing its methodology to include all negative tests, including a person’s multiple negative tests. The new testing data will be published early next week.

Daily case counts are not the most important metric that health officials are using to track disease incidence in the county. Officials say the county’s incidence rate of cases per 100,000 residents as well as the percent of tests that are positive are both important to understanding how the virus is circulating in the community.

Spokane County’s incidence rate has dropped in recent weeks.

At the end of July, it was above 200 cases per 100,000 residents within 14 days, but as of Wednesday, there are 168 cases per 100,000 residents in the county.

The incidence rate is used to determine when it is safe for school districts to resume in-person learning, and state officials say counties should be at 25 cases per 100,000 residents before resuming full in-person learning, while the range from 25 to 75 cases per 100,000 could open up options for hybrid models.

Steve Smith, director of quality, planning and assessment at at the Spokane Regional Health District , estimates that to get Spokane County to the point of a 75 cases per 100,000 incidence rate, that would equate to about 27 new cases reported daily for two weeks. To get the magic number of 25 cases per 100,000 residents, that would be about nine new COVID-19 cases confirmed each day, he said.

Lofy said it is difficult to predict how fast a county’s rate of decline could go.

“I think the rate of decline could be different in different places depending on what is causing that decline,” Lofy said. “After we saw peak activity in March, we watched King County data, and they had a really slow, gradual decline in their activity but looking at data from other parts of the state (other counties) had more precipitous declines.”

County changes hospitalization data reporting

The Spokane Regional Health District has changed the way it reports COVID-19 hospitalizations this month, Smith said Wednesday.

Prior to August, all COVID-19 hospitalizations recorded indicated that a person was hospitalized due to their COVID-19 infection symptoms and required medical attention for them. Now, hospitalization data reflects any person who is in the hospital who also has COVID-19, which could include pregnant women giving birth, people being treated for injuries or people getting surgeries, all who have also tested positive for the virus.

Smith said the change reflects a need for the health district to see what strain COVID-19 is placing on local hospitals in order to treat and care for anyone who has the virus.

Whether a person is hospitalized for their COVID-19 illness or they are getting a surgery not related to their infection, hospital staff must take the same protective precautions when caring for that person.

“We’re looking forward and saying what is the impact on our medical systems because of COVID-19?” Smith said.

“The hospitals are required to take extra precautions, different staffing and a lot more capacity is required for that individual to be there even if they’re not admitted because of COVID-19 itself,” he added.

There are currently 46 patients in Spokane County hospitals with COVID-19, including 37 residents.

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.