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News >  Spokane

Spokane County health officer rejects commissioners’ push to next reopening phase

June 17, 2020 Updated Thu., June 18, 2020 at 4:57 p.m.

Spokane County Health Officer Bob Lutz answers questions during a press conference on March 14.  (Kathy Plonka)
Spokane County Health Officer Bob Lutz answers questions during a press conference on March 14. (Kathy Plonka)
By Rebecca White Adam Shanks and Arielle Dreher The Spokesman-Review

Spokane County Health Officer Bob Lutz declined a request from the Spokane County Commissioners to start the process of moving Spokane County into Phase 3 of the state’s reopening plan.

Commissioners argued in a letter to Lutz that the county is prepared to move forward from Phase 2 and reopen its economy more fully, citing a local hospital capacity that can handle a surge in cases, contact tracing they say is sufficient and a ready supply of free personal protective equipment for businesses.

Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward supported the commissioners’ letter, which she did not sign.

Spokane County Commissioner Al French said businesses have shown they will take precautions, that appropriate safety measures are in place and that commissioners are responding to what the community wants.

“There is some community spread right now, but the key, though, is the community prepared to be able to respond to it? And I think we clearly demonstrated that we are,” French said. “We are never going to get to where we have zero cases, that will never happen, but the question is, Are you prepared to respond to the cases you have? I think we’ve done that.”

Lutz expressed his disagreement in a statement issued Wednesday, and the county cannot move ahead without his approval and that of the state Board of Health.

“I, along with the county’s Board of Health, share our community’s desire to move forward, to further open businesses and to bring life closer to normal. But, at the same time, we have to show patience, resiliency and mindfulness by remaining steady,” his statement read.

Lutz said he spoke with modelers at the Institute for Disease Modeling about a report issued over the weekend that projects increased cases and deaths in the county due to COVID-19 without additional measures put in place.

“Given conversations with the Institute of Disease Modeling, I am concerned by recent signals suggesting increasing communitywide spread,” Lutz added.

Community buy-in

Since the county moved into Phase 2 over Memorial Day weekend, 427 new cases have been identified.

While new cases were expected to accompany reopening, Lutz is concerned about how these new cases appear to have been contracted.

Case numbers initially spiked due to isolated outbreaks, but there is increasing evidence of community spread, meaning new cases are not always easily traced to an outbreak or another confirmed case of COVID-19.

Lutz said health workers are now seeing cases with just a few clusters, which is “very different than where we were a few weeks ago, when we were seeing outbreaks.”

Health officials confirmed 18 new cases Wednesday, bringing the county total to 877. A dozen residents are receiving treatment for the virus in the hospital.

Looking back at hospital data, Lutz said there have been very few times when double-digit numbers of residents were hospitalized for COVID-19. The county hospitalization numbers do not include residents from outside Spokane County receiving treatment here, however, and those people will impact the county’s hospital bed and capacity metrics.

Modelers and health officials say mask wearing, hand-washing and physical distancing are key to bringing case counts down, and Lutz said local buy-in will help the county move forward.

“If people at the community level are not willing to support this communitywide effort, it will be challenging to get in front of it and move forward,” Lutz told reporters Wednesday.

Lutz said he wants to see a couple of weeks of improvement, such as lower case counts and fewer hospitalizations before moving ahead.

“We’re not there yet and unless people really hearken to the message, and I know it’s a tiring message, we’re not going anywhere, unless we start to see improvements in our overall disease picture across the county,” he said.

Members of the Health District board, which would ultimately have to vote on whatever formal recommendation Lutz makes about reopening, largely expressed support for his decision.

Betsy Wilkerson and Karen Stratton, who both sit on the Board of Health and are both Spokane City Council members, backed Lutz on Wednesday.

“We are seeing more cases of COVID in the community. We have to be smart and safe and trust the experts,” Stratton said in a text message. “Dr. Lutz is the expert in this area.”

Ben Wick, chair of the Spokane Regional Health Board and mayor of Spokane Valley, said he would prefer to look at data and hear from Lutz before taking a stance on moving forward.

“I definitely want to see our community get to Phase 3, but I’m not sure if we’re ready or not,” he said.

Lutz said the health district plans to discuss the county’s status in the governor’s phases at the board’s meeting on Thursday, June 25.

‘Covering their bases’

County Commissioner Josh Kerns said the commissioners are “trying to cover their bases” and that the letter was a way to get the process of moving to Phase 3 started. He also noted it was up to Lutz to make a decision based on his professional experience.

“This is an open line of communication to make sure that not only the health officer, but the public knows that this is where we’re at,” he said. “ … We’re ready to do this, and we’re letting Dr. Lutz know here’s our official request.”

Although she has no direct authority in this situation, Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward endorses the request to move into Phase 3, according to city spokesman Brian Coddington.

For Woodward, it’s a notable divergence from Lutz’s guidance, which she has until now advocated the city follow.

Coddington said Woodward will continue to look to Lutz and engage in dialogue regarding the county’s approach to reopening.

Even if it fails to meet the state’s many criteria for reopening, the county has met its goal to expand contact tracing and testing, Coddington said. He also said increased testing of asymptomatic people has led to recent spikes in new cases.

“There’s a good narrative around why we have increased cases,” Coddington said.

On Wednesday, when asked about modifying the state’s criteria for moving ahead, Lutz did not support the idea.

“I would not support any loosening of those criteria whatsoever going forward, because I think it would only serve to make our situation worse,” he said.

At first, the priority was solely public health, Coddington said.

“Now it’s balancing the two interests, and economic health is just as important to the community moving forward as public health,” Coddington said. Woodward “is hearing the stories of impacted people and businesses and so she’s needing to weigh that, as well, in terms of how she evaluates the totality of the situation.”

Kerns said Lutz has discussed reopening museums and libraries, a Phase 3 activity. If that is under discussion, Kerns said a full move to Phase 3 seems reasonable.

Commissioner Mary Kuney said that there is space at hospitals, that the area hasn’t seen huge spikes in cases after weeks of protests and that contact tracers have “boxed in” new cases as well as the workplaces or events they are tied to.

“We’re not seeing that surge that everyone keeps talking about, and we’ve had a lot of people out on the streets on the weekend doing gatherings. Some are wearing face coverings, some are not. Some are staying 6 feet apart, some weren’t,” she said. “I think people aren’t touching and hugging and doing all those things that we used to do, and I think we’re keeping our community safe. I think people are being very respectful so we need to continue to do that. If we continue to do that, we’ll be able to see us open up.”

Lutz said he believes the county did not move forward too soon but that people not following Phase 2 guidelines is a challenge.

“I think people’s response to opening was more exuberant than it should have been,” he said. “If you look at gatherings, it’s no more than five people (outside your household). How many have I seen with more than that, with no face coverings or physically distancing?”

In his response to the commissioners’ letter on Wednesday he wrote, “If we collectively follow these recommendations, the data will reflect our efforts and we will be able to move into Phase 3.”

The board weighs inWhile the commissioners push to move to Phase 3, Gov. Jay Inslee wouldn’t discount during a Wednesday news conference the possibility of Spokane County moving back to Phase 1.

“That is a possibility,” Inslee said. “We certainly don’t want to even consider that. We know how painful it would be.”

If people don’t wear masks, don’t socially distance and if businesses fail to comply with hygiene guidelines, “there might be no other alternative … other than a huge spike in deaths,” he said.

The increases would have to be “higher than they are (currently) in Spokane, so today you don’t have to have that concern.”

The state isn’t looking at a single number, like the number of new cases, in making such decisions, Inslee said, any more than a meteorologist looks at a single data point to predict the weather.

“I can tell you Spokane has made some improvements, and we hope those will continue,” he said.

Spokesman-Review reporter Jim Camden contributed to this report.

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.

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