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News >  Spokane

3 coronavirus cases confirmed in Spokane County residents with ties to local schools

UPDATED: Sat., March 14, 2020

Spokane County Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz answers questions during a press conference confirming 3 coronavirus cases in Spokane County on Saturday. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane County Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz answers questions during a press conference confirming 3 coronavirus cases in Spokane County on Saturday. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

Public health officials confirmed Spokane County’s first cases of novel coronavirus in three residents Saturday morning as officials continue to investigate how they may have contracted the disease and with whom they have come in contact since.

One of the confirmed cases is a Medical Lake School District staff member who spent time at Hallett Elementary School and Medical Lake High School as a robotics team adviser prior to showing symptoms, according to the district.

West Valley School District officials will close schools in the district Monday – the day before Gov. Jay Inslee’s proclamation to close all schools through late April goes into effect – because West Valley High School hosted a robotics competition on March 6 and 7 that a person now infected with COVID-19 attended, according to Superintendent Gene Sementi. At least a few hundred people from schools around Washington and Oregon were in attendance.

“What we’re saying for all of our parents and employees is, if you’re experiencing any of the coronavirus symptoms please contact your health care provider,” Sementi said.

Also among the new cases is a Spokane Public Schools parent with children attending Bemiss Elementary School in Northeast Spokane. That person is isolated at home and did not enter the school this week, according to a message from the school district. Their children are not showing symptoms but attended school Monday and Tuesday last week.

The school will be disinfected and cleaned Sunday and open Monday, according to the school district. Buses were cleaned Friday and will be cleaned again Monday morning.

At a Spokane Regional Health District news conference on Saturday where County Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz released demographic information about the infected persons, Lutz also reminded people to remain calm and practice social distancing to protect themselves, not panic and not hoard supplies.

One of the new confirmed cases is a woman in her 40s who has symptoms but is “feeling OK” in home isolation, according to Lutz. The woman had not traveled but did come into contact with someone who had been in Seattle. It is unclear if that’s how she contracted the virus.

Another case is a man in his 50s, but health officials did not have more information about his condition or travel history, Lutz said a Saturday.

Officials had no information about the third case because they had not been able to contact the patient, Lutz said. He also said one of the state health department cases that is not assigned to a county could have ties to Spokane.

Lutz said he did not think any of the people would immediately require hospitalization.

“As our team of experts works with community partners to learn more about these instances, our first priority remains public safety,” Lutz said in a statement. “The important thing we need to do now is take the recommended measures to slow the spread of COVID-19 through personal and community preparedness measures. As this situation evolves, we will continue to communicate with DOH and the public.”

Lutz said people need to be prepared to make adjustments to their daily routines, such as social distancing and telecommuting, in addition to good hygiene. Officials believe the virus is spread mostly through coming into close contact with people who have symptoms or touching surfaces that have been coughed or sneezed on by someone with COVID-19.

“This does not mean stockpiling resources, it means looking at doing things a little bit differently,” Lutz said at the news conference. “We want people to breathe, but not necessarily breathe on each other.”

Lutz said local hospitals are in good shape to handle the spread of COVID-19.

“What we’re trying to do is be proactive to prevent the capacity from being overwhelmed,” Lutz said. “We certainly have our partners on the West Side to learn from, and they were overwhelmed because of the quick onslaught at which these cases came.”

The Spokane Regional Health District sent out an alert to health care providers Friday with more liberal testing criteria for patients with fever and respiratory illness symptoms, Lutz said.

“As a provider, if you’re thinking about flu, you should be thinking about COVID-19,” Lutz said. “We know there is an uptick in flu in our community.”

The woman in her 40s who tested positive received results in three days, which Lutz said was encouraging. So far 70 people in the county have tested negative for the disease, Lutz said.

“I am certainly encouraged by the fact I am seeing more testing,” said Lutz, noting the diligence of health care providers.

Lutz said it is difficult to say how many more cases might be present in Spokane County. Four individuals with ties to Whitworth University are still awaiting test results.

The Lincoln County Health Department also confirmed its first COVID-19 case in a woman in her 70s who is in home isolation. Lincoln County officials will work with the Spokane Regional Health District to contact people who came into close contact with the woman.

Washington’s 162 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in eight counties on Monday ballooned to 642 and 16 by Saturday, with 541 of them coming from King and Snohomish counties, according to the state Department of Health. Forty people have reportedly died of the virus as of Saturday, with 27 of those attributed to residents of Life Care Center of Kirkland, a nursing home in King County.

East of the Cascades, Yakima County had four confirmed cases, Kittitas County had three, Grant County had two and Columbia County had one as of Saturday, according to the state Department of Health. One person in Eastern Washington, a Grant County resident, has died from COVID-19.

As those Eastern Washington counties confirmed cases earlier this week, Spokane County officials knew the disease was present locally but couldn’t confirm specific cases.

“We see this spreading throughout the entire state,” Lutz said “I just didn’t have confirmation it was here.”

While Spokane County officials awaited their first case, they continued to recommend isolation if people felt sick, social distancing, working remotely if possible and canceling or postponing large events. Officials in other jurisdictions recommended having two weeks worth of food and supplies at home in case people need to self-isolate.

The lag in finding cases in the state had largely been attributed to the lack of test kits for the disease, which were not available in Washington until the end of February, and delays in returning results. The symptoms of COVID-19, including fever, cough and difficulty breathing, are also very similar to those of the flu, making it difficult to differentiate between the two.

Local public schools were already preparing to close starting Tuesday through April 24 when Gov. Jay Inslee announced Friday the shutdown of all in-person activities at public and private schools and universities, in addition to gatherings of more than 250 people statewide.

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

Gonzaga University announced Thursday it was extending its spring vacation to March 23 and said Saturday it will resume the semester with classes online. University officials are still planning for how to offer on-campus services, such as food and dining. Washington State University and Eastern Washington University adopted similar measures Tuesday.

City of Spokane officials had been working to identify potential isolation and quarantine sites for people diagnosed with, or suspected to be infected with, coronavirus. Signing a short-term lease on a facility remains one of several possibilities to protect populations vulnerable to the disease, including people experiencing homelessness and those who are unable to isolate themselves. Some shelter providers already have isolation spaces that could be used, such as Catholic Charities’ new apartment buildings that feature quarantine rooms.

The potential cost of those measures remains unknown. The state Legislature on Thursday approved $200 million in emergency funds to support the coronavirus response. President Donald Trump declared a nationwide state of emergency Friday, potentially making $50 billion available in emergency funding.

On Tuesday, the Metropolitan King County Council approved a $28 million funding package that will pay for the purchase of a vacant motel and installation of temporary dorms and trailers at three county-owned properties, according to the Seattle Times.

Officials with the Spokane area’s Emergency Operations Center, which is led by Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, will meet Monday with Lutz and other Spokane Regional Health District representatives to plan a response to the spreading virus.

“It’s time for our community to take a deep breath, refocus and bring things back down. We will get through this,” Knezovich told KHQ in an interview. “We need everybody to pull together right now. … If you have the ability to help your neighbors, please do that.”

Knezovich, who said he has received several calls from local charities and organizations hoping to help with the response, will work with other officials to organize the distribution of those resources. He said people going to stores to gather supplies should only purchase the amount they need to “get the supply chains re-established.”

“If you are quarantined, we have a plan to make sure you are taken care of,” he said. “We will get through this as a community.”

This story is developing and will be updated.

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