Public health experts and epidemiologists, including Spokane County Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz, knew that COVID-19 was on its way to the U.S. back when reports of a novel coronavirus surfaced in China in late December and early January.
While Lutz believes that early warning gave local leaders enough time to prepare, he says federal officials weren’t as on the ball.
“I would say it’s been challenging, because the preparation, not so much locally or at a state level, but that (federal) preparedness really was not to the degree it should have been,” Lutz said during a virtual Northwest Passages Forum on Thursday.
Spokane County has managed so far to slow the spread of COVID-19 compared to other urban centers in Eastern Washington, and Lutz credited early actions taken by the health district as well as the region’s less-dense metro area for the relatively low infection rate, compared to other cities in the region.
While Spokane has had 382 confirmed cases with 25 deaths due to the respiratory virus, communities like Yakima, the Tri-Cities and Seattle have seen twice that.
“I remember talking with my colleague in Seattle the day before we had our first health officer order, and I asked him, ‘Given what you experienced in the last few weeks, would you do things differently?’” Lutz said. “He said, ‘Yeah, I would.’ ”
His Seattle colleague said the main thing he would have done differently was that he would have acted faster.
That advice spurred Lutz to issue his first public health order, canceling events and gatherings of more than 250 people, in mid-March. Later the same week, Gov. Jay Inslee issued a statewide order shutting schools and prohibiting large gatherings.
Lutz also credits Dorothy MacEachern, who came out of retirement to help the Spokane region respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, for helping the region stay largely ahead of the virus. MacEachern has worked for the Department of Health to help long-term care facilities prevent and respond to outbreaks.
Local health care providers have also mounted responses to help long-term care facilities, he said. MultiCare, for example, has had a physician and infection-prevention specialist team on call to help out when needed.
The county’s more recent cases and deaths have been associated with long-term care facilities, Lutz said, though he noted local efforts have largely contained those cases from turning into larger outbreaks.
“More recently, however, if I look at how COVID-19 is spreading, it’s not spreading across the community,” Lutz said.
Reporter Arielle Dreher interviewed Bob Lutz for the Virtual Northwest Passages Forum on Tuesday.
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