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Inslee closes all schools starting March 17 through April 24

UPDATED: Fri., March 13, 2020

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee talks to the media about his decision to expand school closures and prohibition of large gatherings across all of Washington in an effort to slow the spread of the new coronavirus, Friday, March 13, 2020. Inslee issued the executive orders, saying the virus is spreading rapidly across the state. Previously, school closures and prohibitions of large gatherings had only been ordered in the three counties with the highest numbers of cases. (Rachel La Corte / AP)
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee talks to the media about his decision to expand school closures and prohibition of large gatherings across all of Washington in an effort to slow the spread of the new coronavirus, Friday, March 13, 2020. Inslee issued the executive orders, saying the virus is spreading rapidly across the state. Previously, school closures and prohibitions of large gatherings had only been ordered in the three counties with the highest numbers of cases. (Rachel La Corte / AP)

With public health officials and modelers urging officials to take action before it was too late, Gov. Jay Inslee acted on Friday, shutting down schools, univerisities and all gatherings of more than 250 people statewide.

The interventions, health officials say, are necessary to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus in Washington.

“A county-by-county approach to this epidemic is not sufficient,” Inslee said. “We need to get ahead of this wave, and we need to do it today.”

The need for action became clearer over the week, as testing ramped up – and so did the number of confirmed cases of the respiratory virus.

Washington had 162 confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Monday. By Friday, that number was 568.

The virus was in eight counties on Monday. By Friday, it was in 15.

There were 23 deaths from the virus on Monday. By Friday, there were 37.

Health officials and modelers agree that taking no action would lead to a rapidly increasing number of cases. Researchers forecasted that King and Snohomish counties could have 25,000 COVID-19 infections if leaders implemented no social distancing measures.

Spokane County health officials and leaders also announced they were taking the opportunity to get ahead of the curve on Friday.

“If we do no interventions whatsoever, then you have a very, very rapid acceleration of cases as we are seeing internationally, nationally and locally,” Dr. Bob Lutz, Spokane County health officer, said on Friday, referencing a steep bell curve to explain why canceling events now can help prevent the widespread number of cases of COVID-19 in the community.

If health officials do act to curb the spread of COVID-19, they can lower the bell curve significantly, Lutz said.

“That’s our effort,” he said, pointing to a lower curve. “What we want to do is both slow the onset of illness and slow the impact and lessen the impact.”

Just hours before Inslee announced several statewide prohibitions to curb COVID-19, Lutz made a historical announcement at the Spokane Regional Health District. Using his statutory power as the region’s health officer, he ordered all events of more than 250 people canceled, as of Friday night, for 30 days.

“We are still ahead of the pandemic in our community, and knowing that by increasing preparedness actions now, we can slow the progression of COVID-19,” Lutz said.

Beyond canceling events, Lutz also encouraged social distancing in all gatherings, leaving at least six feet of space between people, in order to reduce person-to-person spread.

So far, Spokane County has no confirmed cases of COVID-19, but health officials believe that there are cases in the community.

Due to limited testing kits available statewide and nationwide, there are guidelines that limit who health care providers can test and a lag in test results getting back to county health districts.

Lutz likened preparing for COVID-19 in Spokane County to preparing for a flood, before it comes.

“If you know you have heavy rains all at once, the system will be quickly overwhelmed and you may not be able to recover. If, however, you have the same amount of rain that slowly falls over a period of time, then the system can adapt,” Lutz said. “We have to be able to adapt.”

Ensuring the region’s health care system can care for the minority of patients with COVID-19 who need to be hospitalized is Lutz’s top priority.

Lutz did not recommend that schools be closed during a press conference, acknowledging that the ramifications of school closures would be “significant.”

Almost immeidately after that press conference, county health officials heard about Inslee’s forthcoming announcement that all public and private schools in Washington will be closed for six weeks, beginning Tuesday.

A spokeswoman for Inslee later said that Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal spoke with Spokane Public Schools Superintendent Shelley Redinger before the announcement to close all schools in the state was made in Olympia. But the office did not speak with Lutz or the local elected officials who were with him at the Spokane announcement.

Inslee did inform Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, Tara Lee said.

“The governor always wants to consult with locals before decisions are made, but we were not able to do it this morning,” Tara Lee, spokeswoman for the governor’s office, said.

The six weeks without school is not an extended vacation for students, Inslee said, but a different way for students to do their work.

Schools will continue to provide key nutrition services, and maintain their before- and after-school child care programs. Spokane Public Schools plans to continue providing childcare services for parents in health care roles, first responders and vulnerable populations. Additionally, SPS will provide meals to students, Redinger said in a statement.

The governor also restricted in-person activities and classes at public colleges and universities statewide, although many institutions will continue courses online. One day after banning gatherings of 250 people in three West Side counties, Inslee expanded the band to the entire state.

The statewide decisions were “a very difficult judgment call,” Inslee said, and will likely have economic impacts.

“There are things we can do to help local employers get through this,” he said.

State and local officials warned that the situation with COVID-19 is rapidly changing and evolving.

“We are working daily, literally hourly, with community partners, to assess Spokane County’s status with the COVID-19 pandemic,” Lutz said Friday. “We will monitor conditions and update guidance accordingly.”

Spokesman-Review reporters Jim Camden and Jim Allen contributed to this story.

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