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Lutz: More mask-wearing required for Spokane County to control virus, continue reopening

UPDATED: Wed., July 8, 2020

Cathy Long, of the Meals on Wheels program, is photographed at the facility in Spokane Valley on Thursday, April 16.  (Kathy Plonka)
Cathy Long, of the Meals on Wheels program, is photographed at the facility in Spokane Valley on Thursday, April 16. (Kathy Plonka)

More Spokane County residents will need to wear masks and face coverings in public to help flatten the curve of the recent rise in COVID-19 cases countywide.

That’s the message Spokane County Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz delivered Wednesday, after viewing the results of the first local survey of mask usage.

That survey, which the Spokane Regional Health District conducted over the weekend, found that about 65% of residents were wearing face coverings. Lutz said that’s not enough to stem the coronavirus’ rising tide.

“I want to see it up at 80 to 90% (compliance with the masking order), and that’s where it needs to be to have an impact,” Lutz told reporters Wednesday.

Spokane County reported 58 new cases of COVID-19 and no new deaths from the disease on Wednesday.

In the past two weeks, hospitalizations of county residents have nearly doubled, as experts predicted. Twenty-four county residents are hospitalized with the virus, and 38 individuals are in local hospitals with COVID-19.

Despite more testing in the county, a higher percentage of those tested are testing positive. In the past week, 7.7% of county residents tested were positive, according to state data.

Spokane County has had hundreds of cases reported in the last week alone. Many of these cases are due to community spread, when epidemiologists can find no known link to other known cases.

Lutz said he is concerned about young people who work or gather in restaurants and bars continuing to test positive at high rates. Currently, 45% of county residents with COVID-19 are in their 20s and 30s.

This is a statewide trend, and state health officials expressed concerns about it on Wednesday.

“It’s incredibly important for young people to limit their social interactions and to wear masks,” State Health Officer Dr. Kathy Lofy said. “Those are the two messages that we really need to get across to our young people, because everybody likes to gather, but young people like to gather in large crowds but they don’t always want to wear masks.”

Lutz said people in Spokane County have been gathering in groups larger than what is allowed in Phase 2, the county’s current stage in the state’s reopening plan.

Outbreaks have been reported across the state in a variety of settings, including restaurants, retail stores, long-term care facilities and food production plants, Lofy said.

In Spokane, where some restaurants have been forced to close again due to cases, the Spokane Hospitality Association announced an initiative in which member bars, restaurants and hotels will post signage and enforce the governor’s order to require masks in their establishments. This means customers dining at a restaurant must wear a mask when they are walking around and until they are seated.

Lutz noted that employees at restaurants and bars, where customers do not have to wear masks at their individual tables, are at high risk for contracting the virus. Similarly, state health officials explained that indoor spaces where people gather for long periods of time are high-risk environments.

“The thing for the public to understand is that highest-risk environments are indoor environments where people are not wearing face coverings and people are indoors for a period of time,” State Secretary of Health John Wiesman said.

The Spokane Regional Health District is contracting with an outside organization to support its epidemiologists with contact tracing in the next week, due to the high volume of cases reported recently. Lutz said the Spokane district’s epidemiologists would continue to lead with confirmed case investigations and would leave contact tracing and contact investigations to the new group. The district will be using COVID-19 funds to pay for this service.

A backlog of people awaiting test results still exists. Lutz said results were coming back this past weekend for tests performed a week earlier.

Nationwide, large commercial laboratories are struggling to keep up with the demand, as they are asked to process more tests. There is also a need for more materials to test individuals like the viral transport medium, Lutz said. The state health department continues to provide testing kits and materials if a local jurisdiction needs more.

While health officials stressed that compliance with mask orders will be vital to stopping the number of cases from continuing to rise statewide, Lutz said that any masking that happens now won’t begin to make a difference for a few weeks in the county’s case counts, as the incubation period of COVID-19 is two weeks.

Lutz stressed that there are only two options to break the curve.

“We can go back to ‘Stay Home, Stay Healthy’ and everyone is hunkered down at home, or we can continue to phase in and open up and continue to require people to wear face coverings,” he said.

Lutz said he wants to see a two- to four-week trend in decreasing cases before he feels confident saying that masking is having an impact.

“Behavior change takes time, and behavior changes to affect pandemic curves take even more time,” he said.

Wiesman expressed frustration with the state’s rising case counts, noting that only 16 counties are meeting the desired case count requirement set by the governor’s Safe Start reopening guidelines.

“It’s disheartening to the public health folks working on this for 160 days,” Wiesman said. “It’s very disheartening to see these numbers go up. People are working so hard in the public health and health care settings to try and avoid this, and we need everybody pulling their own weight on this.”

State health officials have paused the process of advancing counties in the state’s reopening plan. Wiesman said state health officials haven’t made decisions about pushing counties back phases or adjusting the state’s strategy to slow the spread, though they are looking at several options. He said if the economy is going to stay open and schools are going to reopen in the fall, people need to take wearing face coverings seriously.

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