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More Spokane residents adhere to mask mandate, but it might be weeks before case counts decrease

About 93% of Spokane County residents are complying with the state's mask mandates in public places. However fewer people are wearing masks in private settings.  (DAN PELLE/Spokesman-Review)

The vast majority of Spokane residents are complying with the statewide mask mandate, the most recent observational survey from the health district found.

About 93% of residents are wearing face coverings in retail stores and public areas, according to the survey. Previous surveys found about 60% of residents wearing face coverings.

If residents do not adhere to physical distancing or mask requirements when they socialize, however, such progress might be for naught.

“We can put all of the guidance in place in businesses and retail and restaurants, but what we can’t put in place is what people do on their own,” Spokane Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz said on Wednesday.

Contact tracing has found that community spread of the virus, which occurs when people cannot identify where they contracted the virus, continues to increase. Even if the community adhered to all physical distancing and face covering measures, it would still take a few weeks to reflect those changes in the data, Lutz said.

He believes the region has not yet reached its peak in cases.

“If 100% of people today were to follow all the guidance, physically distance, wear face coverings in public, staying home when you’re ill, it would take us at our current trajectory four to six weeks to see a significant impact in our cases,” Lutz said. “We are not at our peak yet, nor have we seen a flattening.”

The Spokane Regional Health District confirmed 74 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, bringing the county total to 2,961. The proportion of people tested for the coronavirus who have had a positive result in the last week is 9.2%, which is higher than the statewide average of 5.8%. The goal for counties to reach is 2% or less of those tested receiving a positive result in order to advance to the next phase of reopening.

State Secretary of Health John Wiesman returned applications from all counties trying to move forward in the state’s reopening plan this week, as case rates continue to climb statewide. The pause on reopening counties was extended to July 28.

“We need to be seeing not only downturns in our rates, but rates coming way down,” Wiesman told reporters Wednesday. “When we look at ‘reopening’ … somehow in people’s minds they equate that to the problem is gone and we can just go back to our previous ways of interacting with each other, and that’s really not the case.”

On July 13, the state reported 876 confirmed cases in one day, the highest number of daily cases reported to date. While the daily case counts appear to be leveling out in the past week, State Health Officer Kathy Lofy said the state’s rate of people testing positive has grown in recent weeks. While more testing has indeed led to finding more cases, the number of people testing positive has also risen, implying that the virus is more widespread. On June 15, for example, the state seven-day rolling average for percent positivity was 3.8%.

“Whenever we see increases, it does imply that activity is increasing,” Lofy said.

The Department of Health and the University of Washington announced a statewide serology survey that will help health officials see exactly who has been affected by the virus in different regions and age groups. The study will survey and test at least 7,000 people statewide to see how widespread the virus is.

“It will help us to make plans to address the pandemic moving forward,” Lofy said.

Hospitalizations, while not at the high statewide levels from April, are continuing to increase, which concerns Lofy. In Spokane hospitals, 51 people are receiving treatment for COVID-19, and 31 of those patients are residents of Spokane County. Spokane is the regional health care hub for treatment, as well as for clinical trials for antiviral treatments for COVID-19, meaning patients from other counties are transferred here for care.

Vice Admiral Raquel Bono, who is leading the state’s health care COVID-19 response, said statewide hospital response planning ensures hospitals will not be overwhelmed with patients. She can track the number of ICU beds that are empty or full with COVID-19 patients as well as the number of ventilators on hand and in use. Currently, there is capacity in Washington’s health care system to take care of patients.

Across the state line, in Kootenai County, the critical care unit at Kootenai Health was at capacity earlier this week, although not due to a high number of COVID-19 patients needing intensive care. The hospital has added six new beds to its critical care unit to create more capacity as well as brought in more nursing staff to take care of patients needing critical care. The number of COVID-19 patients from North Idaho hospitalized has nearly tripled in less than two weeks. There are currently 22 patients receiving treatment at Kootenai Health for the virus, and five of them are in the critical care unit.

Kootenai County expects to see hospitalizations increase in the coming weeks as COVID-19 continues to spread. The Panhandle Health District reported 46 new cases on Wednesday, with a total of 1,329 cases. There is no mask mandate in Idaho nor in the five-county Panhandle Health District region. The Board of Health meets Thursday and could bring up an action item related to the COVID-19 response.

What happens in Kootenai County and in North Idaho with the virus will ultimately affect Spokane, and Lutz is in conversation with the administrator of the Panhandle Health District about their plans to prepare for more hospitalizations as cases continue to increase.

“What happens there, happens here,” 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.