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News >  WA Government

Washington Health Department asking for $100 million to fight coronavirus

March 2, 2020 Updated Mon., March 2, 2020 at 7:54 p.m.

OLYMPIA – Secretary of Health John Weisman, right, and Gov. Jay Inslee explain steps being taken in Washington to control the novel coronavirus outbreak during a press conference Monday. (Jim Camden / The Spokesman-Review)
OLYMPIA – Secretary of Health John Weisman, right, and Gov. Jay Inslee explain steps being taken in Washington to control the novel coronavirus outbreak during a press conference Monday. (Jim Camden / The Spokesman-Review)

OLYMPIA – Washington lawmakers are being asked to set aside $100 million for the next 16 months to fund the state’s response to the novel coronavirus.

John Weisman, state secretary of health, told the Senate Ways and Means Committee on Monday morning that’s the estimated cost of state and local responses to the disease if cases continue to increase.

“This is a very dynamic situation,” Weisman said. “The risk is increasing. There is some community spread we are seeing.”

Gov. Jay Inslee later joined Weisman at a news conference to emphasize the state’s response would be based “on science rather than anxiety.”

“The easiest ways to defeat this are common-sense things,” Inslee said, with strategies like washing hands, sanitizing frequently touched surfaces and staying home when sick.

“Anyone who’s feeling under the weather, go home and take care of yourselves and do not put others at risk,” said Inslee, who said he stayed home last Wednesday.

Those most at risk are those who are 60 and older and have chronic health conditions or compromised immune systems. The department is encouraging people with those conditions to avoid large crowds, just as they would during flu season, Weisman said.

“We are really early in this. Modeling is not predictable,” he said “It’s the tip of the iceberg.”

It’s possible that classes could be suspended and large events could be canceled as the virus spreads, he said. Local health officials and school superintendents will make the decision on schools; a guideline for canceling public events hasn’t been drawn up but “we need to be thinking about it.”

The request for $100 million was made as lawmakers finish discussions for adding to the two-year state operating budget they approved last year. They have an extra $1.5 billion in tax revenue coming into the state from the strong economy, but only 10 days left in the session to pass the budget.

Republican senators introduced a bill Monday morning that would use $100 million from the state’s budget stabilization account – often called the Rainy Day Fund – to help pay for the response to the coronavirus. A bipartisan House bill would move at least $50 million from the budget stabilization account into a special disaster response account for the coronavirus for this fiscal year and another $50 million for the 2021 fiscal year.

Ways and Means Committee Chairwoman Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, said legislators need to be flexible and open-minded about adding money to the budget for coronavirus so the state has the resources it needs if it becomes a serious pandemic.

The Health Department has spent $2.3 million so far, involving between 100 and 150 public health workers, Weisman said. Public health agencies in King and Snohomish County have spent another $1.2 million, involving another 100 workers.

The department is in the containment phase of its response to the virus, in an effort to slow down the spread and get beyond traditional flu season, he said. Because Washington had the first confirmed case in the United States, other states are using its containment strategies.

Data still is being gathered on the virus, Weisman said, and the fatality rate right now is uncertain. It seems to be about 1% of cases, which would compare to between 0.1% and 0.01% for certain strains of influenza, and 10% for SARS and 30% for MERS.

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