COVID-19 case counts are increasing in Eastern Washington, from Yakima to Spokane, where outbreaks as well as increased testing and contact tracing have all led to more cases.
State health officials said they expected as much on Tuesday, when Spokane County’s recent rise in cases continued with a dozen more confirmed and two deaths from the disease reported.
“As we are investigating outbreaks, we’re encouraging thorough testing of folks at worksites, so finding more cases in these kinds of events is a good thing and helps us with the disease-control work we’re doing,” State Secretary of Health John Wiesman told reporters.
In recent weeks, an average of more than 200 Washington state residents has tested positive for the virus each day, as testing has increased .
Over the past few weeks, about 6,000 to 8,000 tests have been administered each weekday . Increased testing is important because it shows that robust contact tracing is working, and State Health Officer Dr. Kathy Lofy said case finding – the practice of finding as many cases as you can connected to a person and then isolating them – is encouraged.
“When communities have outbreaks, we encourage them to test everybody to find all the cases associated with that outbreak,” Lofy said. “So that’s something we need to keep in mind when we’re thinking and looking at case count.”
While case count is among the criteria state officials use when evaluating counties seeking to move to the next phase of the reopening process, Lofy said she is equally concerned about counties’ hospitalization rates.
“Sometimes you can see big increases in case counts but not increases in hospitalizations and that’s because you have an outbreak in a younger, healthier population, and they’re not experiencing severe disease,” she continued.
This could be what’s happening in Spokane County, where 163 20-somethings are diagnosed with COVID-19 and where 20- and 30-year-olds make up more than a third of the county’s total cases. There are only seven people hospitalized with the virus in the county, and 89 county residents have been hospitalized since the pandemic began.
Despite a steep increase in cases in Spokane County in the past two weeks, hospitalizations continue to remain low and steady, as do new admissions.
Lofy said Eastern Washington counties are seeing a lot of cases in younger people, likely due to workplace transmission. In Yakima County, 50% of confirmed cases are in residents under the age of 40.
“It’s the younger adults who are essential workers and working in the food industry, and we’re doing a lot of outreach to those populations in Eastern Washington counties,” Lofy said.
She said the state guidance to workplaces, including the requirement that all employees wear masks that are appropriate for their worksite, will help address transmission at these jobs.
The Spokane County Regional Health District has identified 774 cases and counted 37 deaths.
There are current COVID-19 cases in at least three assisted living facilities in Spokane County and at a handful of adult family homes, according to state data. Local health officials have linked other outbreaks to workplaces, but they decline to name those sites.
The fairgrounds testing site closed on Tuesday, ahead of its originally scheduled closing date on June 18. Other testing sites are available at clinics and health care providers throughout the community.
Emergency rules to protect workers at high risk for COVID-19 were extended to Aug. 1 on Tuesday.
Gov. Jay Inslee extended an emergency order that allows those workers – those 65 and older or with underlying health conditions that aren’t well controlled – to request alternative assignments or the ability to work from a remote location. The order allows them to use accrued leave or unemployment benefits if an alternative assignment is not available and forbids employers from permanently replacing them.
Inslee also issued new guidance for domestic workers for counties in Phase 2 of the economic restart, which includes Spokane County.
The guidance, which applies to nannies, house cleaners, cooks and gardeners, requires employers to educate them in the language they best understand about coronavirus and ways to prevent it. They are required to maintain6-foot separations between staff and employers. W hen that’s not possible for a specific task, they must use other measures, such as barriers, to restrict the number of people in a narrow area or must stagger shifts.
Employers should provide workers with personal protective equipment like gloves, goggles and face masks at no cost when they are needed for a particular activity.
Inslee also issued updated guidance for golf for areas in Phase 2 that allows for normal golf groups as long as social distancing is followed among members from different households and tournaments are permitted with certain distancing limits.
Pro shops can sell more products and operate under Phase 2 retail guidance, which allows for some in-store shopping, and clubhouses can offer limited services under the local restaurant guidance.
S-R reporter Jim Camden contributed to this story.
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