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Spokane County health officer joined in Sunday’s march

Spokane County Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz stands with Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane County Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz joined thousands of people on Sunday protesting police brutality against Black Americans, marching across the Monroe Street Bridge to the Spokane County Courthouse.

“It really showed that people of all colors are not willing and not wanting to allow this issue to rest,” Lutz said on Monday. “We mustn’t allow the ill will of a few, however, to detract and distract from the will of thousands who rallied yesterday in downtown Spokane, who peacefully protested the killing of George Floyd and the many Black lives.”

People protested around the U.S. and the world, leading in some cases to more violence, property damage and looting. On Sunday, state Secretary of Health John Wiesman issued a statement in support of the Black community.

“While more recently, we have taken intentional action to address the root causes of health inequities, including structural racism and other forms of oppression, there is still a lot of work to do,” Wiesman said in a media statement. “Public health must continue to respond and lead with racial equity and social justice. Racism is a public health threat that can’t be ignored. And leading with racial equity and social justice requires us to prioritize the health and well-being of historically marginalized and oppressed communities — including Black, Indigenous and People of Color, individuals with disabilities and the LGBTQ+ community, to name a few.”

Nationally, COVID-19 has disproportionately affected racial and ethnic minority groups, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and this reflects what prior research has shown on disparities in health outcomes for nonwhite people in the United States.

A 2015 CDC report on these disparities found that Black Americans have the highest rates of infant and maternal mortality, preterm births and hypertension in the country, compared to all other ethnicities. Black men, specifically, have a lower life expectancy rate at birth than white and Hispanic men and women in the United States.

Lutz pointed to the inequities in not only health care but also society prior to the pandemic.

“We have a society that has institutionalized racism and to speak to that is part of what we do in public health,” Lutz told reporters Monday.

Lutz said he wanted to show his support and be a part of the demonstration. Despite large gatherings being prohibited due to COVID-19, Lutz estimated that about 80 to 90% of people at the demonstration were wearing masks.

“People were out in a congregant setting and we know right now, it’s not encouraged nor safe, but it happened and it happened for a reason,” he said. “I am glad it happened for a reason. It’s unfortunate how it ended, but again I think people were out there for a reason, and they knew the risk associated with COVID-19.”

When asked if he was concerned about the potential for an uptick in cases due to the demonstration, Lutz said we might see a spike.

“I might, but again, I think the reason why people were there and putting their lives at risk for COVID-19 sort of outweighed their concern from that standpoint,” he said. “We will see, but I am very glad it happened.”

Last week, Spokane County health officials confirmed more than 100 new cases of COVID-19, due in part, to increased testing and clusters forming in family settings. Over the weekend, 32 more people tested positive in the county. There have now been 602 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Spokane County.

Though the weekend case counts actually marked improvement in the number of cases reported each day, Lutz does not think the county is ready at this point to move to Phase 3 of the governor’s reopening plan.

“The last couple of weeks have not suggested to me that we’re at the point where we can move to Phase 3,” he said Monday. “The options do exist to partially move to Phase 3, so that may be a consideration, but our cases have gone up and so has the workload.”

Hospitalizations have not gone up too much, he noted. There are eight people hospitalized with COVID-19 in the county. Those numbers might increase in the coming days and the next week or so, however, as the county moved into Phase 2 a week ago and any spread may not be evident until this week or next.

Lutz said it can take about a week to 10 days after a person is symptomatic to get sick enough to need hospitalization. He expects to continue to see more cases as a result of people getting out into the community and increased testing with expanded eligibility.

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.