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Washington state in an ‘explosive situation’ as Spokane County sees exponential growth of cases

Spokane County Health Officer Bob Lutz, shown in this March photo, said Spokane County's rising COVID-19 case county is due to gatherings and people not adhering to the state's mask mandate.  (Kathy Plonka/Spokesman-Review)

Large gatherings in backyards or at local parks, without masks or physical distancing, are putting Spokane County in danger of forced closures and new restrictions.

“It’s a distinct possibility,” Spokane Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz said on Monday, noting the continued increase in cases.

The Spokane Regional Health District confirmed 91 new cases on Monday, which does not include the 146 cases confirmed over the weekend. There are now 2,809 confirmed cases in the county, and last week only 36% of case investigations completed so far could connect cases to other know cases, meaning community spread of the virus is rising.

The Inland Northwest is seeing not only dramatic case count jumps but an increase in hospitalizations as well. Health care providers at Spokane hospitals are treating 51 patients with COVID-19 in local hospitals, and 32 of them are county residents.

Lutz said local case counts are now being driven by gatherings, not just at restaurants or offices, but in people’s backyards or parks.

“Our cases are being driven by these gatherings; it’s not a function of a particular workspace,” he said. “We don’t want to be like Florida or Arizona, but the behaviors driving their cases are the same behaviors driving our cases here,” he added.

The Spokane Veterans Home announced that a contract employee has tested positive for COVID-19, although they were wearing appropriate personal protective equipment while they were at work and experiencing no symptoms. All staff and residents who were exposed to the employee are being tested for the virus, and the Veterans Home will conduct symptom and surveillance checks for residents every four hours for the next two weeks.

Modelers using cellphone data have found that an increasing number of Spokane County residents are traveling into Idaho and the Coeur d’Alene area on the weekends, Lutz said, which is also a COVID-19 hot spot with rapidly increasing case counts.

The Panhandle Health District reported 110 new cases on Monday, and the five-county region now has 1,240 confirmed cases. There is no mask mandate in Idaho or the five-county region after efforts failed last week to put one in place. Hospitalizations in north Idaho have doubled in just a few weeks to 19. Lutz is in conversation with the Panhandle Health District to coordinate their responses to the virus. Ultimately, however, it comes down to behavior, he said.

A report from the Institute for Disease Modeling released on Friday said Washington state, including Spokane County, is in “an explosive situation.” The reproductive rate of the virus in eastern Washington is estimated to be 1.41 people infected for each positive case of COVID-19. The daily hospitalizations are increasing in both sides of the state. The only bright spot is in Yakima County where masking and distancing mandates led to a decline in case rates, while Spokane County’s are heading in the opposite direction.

Modelers found that Spokane, specifically, “has been experiencing accelerating exponential growth in COVID-19 burden that has yet to show significant signs of slowing.”

Starting Monday, the governor’s revised orders banning any live music or entertainment in restaurants and taverns as well as limiting gathering sizes went into effect. The changes to gathering sizes do not affect Spokane County, which is in Phase 2, meaning gatherings should be limited to five people or less. Restaurant inspectors have begun their routine inspections again, which now include looking at a restaurant’s COVID-19 plan and ensuring they are following safety precautions necessary to keep employees and customers safe.

Wearing a face covering in public is required in Washington state indoors and outdoors when people are not maintaining six feet of physical space between them, and large gatherings are prohibited. The Spokane Regional Health District did not have the latest results from observational masking surveys on Monday, but last week the district’s survey showed fewer than 60% of residents using masks. .

In conversation with modelers at the Institute for Disease Modeling, Lutz said he expects that case counts will double every 10 to 20 days.

Young people, in their 20s and 30s, account for 46% of confirmed cases in Spokane County, a trend seen statewide and nationally. In places like Florida, however, where young people were spreading the virus for several weeks, people in all age groups eventually contracted the virus, which modelers use to show that the virus cannot be isolated to a certain age group. Convincing young people to limit group gatherings or wear face coverings, despite it being state law, is challenging for health officials.

Lutz is not on TikTok, and Kelli Hawkins, public information officer at the health district, said that reaching out to the younger generations through social media platforms is a priority, but it requires some tact. Young adults are not just going to naturally follow the Spokane Regional Health District on Instagram, for example, and she said the state health department is also working on a strategy to reach younger demographics.

“We’re doing some preliminary surveys,” Hawkins said, noting that the district had reached out to some school groups and young people in their efforts to engage that age group in wearing face coverings, gathering in small groups and in essence, taking the pandemic seriously.

The real challenge is that while younger people with no underlying health conditions may not suffer severe symptoms if they contract the virus, Hawkins said, they work and live around others who might be more susceptible to real challenges with the virus, whether that be their peers with underlying health conditions, parents or grandparents.

Lutz recalled seeing a group of young adults on Lime scooters over the weekend, and just one of them had a face covering – around his neck.

“It’s unfathomable to me at this point that they couldn’t be taking this seriously,” 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.