Five counties in Eastern Washington with a combined total of six confirmed COVID-19 cases – and none in the last three weeks – got the go-ahead on Friday to move more quickly than other parts of the state to Phase 2 of Gov. Jay Inslee’sreopening plan.
Ferry, Pend Oreille, Columbia, Garfield and Lincoln counties have all been approved to open more businesses and allow small gatherings of up to five people beginning Friday.
But Stevens County, which is sandwich between Ferry and Pend Oreille counties, is not yet able to move forward with its neighbors because it hasn’t gone three weeks without a case.
Health districts in the counties moving to Phase 2 have been working with businesses already and will continue to help local residents understand the nuances of what will be required and allowed going forward.
Most businesses, including retail, real estate, hair salons and restaurants, will have to wait until Inslee’s office issues safety criteria and then meet those criteria before they reopen.
It’s been a month since the last confirmed case in Lincoln County, which has a sparse and spread out population. Its rural nature, lack of large retail, warehouse or congregant settings, and a bit of luck can help explain the county’s two confirmed cases, said Ed Dzedzy, administrator at the Lincoln County Health Department.
The county’s agricultural sector has been open throughout the pandemic because of its essential business status, but the Phase 2 reopening will help restaurants and businesses reopen.
“People need to realize that even though we’re starting the process, the virus is still out there and can come from anywhere,” Dzedzy said. “And we still need to be washing our hands, physically distancing and staying home if we’re sick.”
Matt Schanz, administrator of the Northeast Tri County Health District, said Stevens County could move forward to Phase 2 in the coming weeks, especially if the county hits May 11 with no cases, marking three weeks in a row.
“Our mantra is that we want this early progression into Phase 2 to be successful, and we don’t want to see any increase of COVID-19,” Schanz said. “It’s incumbent on us to make sure it’s a successful transition.”
The only Phase 2 business with criteria to operate in Ferry and Pend Oreille counties thus far is the construction sector, Schanz said.
Health officials in these counties will be watching closely for potential resurgence or, in some cases, emergence of the virus for the rest of the month. If they get another confirmed case, they won’t have to go backward, however, Schanz said.
On Friday, Gov. Inslee said the state may be in “the most difficult, most dangerous” place in the effort to stop the spread of COVID-19. The number of cases is coming down, some parts of the economy are slowly reopening and the weekend weather is expected to be “unbelievably gorgeous.”
But epidemiologists believe the number of people each infected person passes the virus to is starting to creep up, he said. In March, each new case of COVID-19 was responsible for three new cases. By early April, it was below one in Western Washington and just above one in Eastern Washington. But by mid- to late April it was moving up above one on both sides of the state.
Those numbers are among the data state officials are monitoring as they decide whether to allow some parts of Washington to move to Phase 2 before the state as a whole does so. But that could change.
Spokane County elected officials are hoping to move ahead to Phase 2 earlier than the statewide projected time around June, and numbers on Friday continued to show the slowed spread of the virus in the county.
Spokane County has 382 confirmed cases of COVID-19. On Friday, Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz announced the deaths of two men in their 70s, bringing the county total to 28.
The state continues to struggle to acquire the necessary number of testing kits and enough personal protective equipment. Inslee said the state expects to receive more swabs from the federal stockpile next week. Lutz said the supply shortages have been felt locally.
“I learned yesterday that a request we put in March 18 was received two days ago,” Lutz said Thursday, referring to testing kits requested for the drive-up screening and testing site at the fairgrounds.
The Spokane Regional Health District still needs more personal protective equipment to distribute to long-term care facilities and adult family homes. Facilities that have a confirmed case are prioritized for PPE, but the supply levels are a “frustrating situation,” Lutz said Thursday.
“It’s a competition at the national and international level, which is challenging for us,” Lutz said.
Inslee also shrugged off a series of lawsuits that have been file by critics of his emergency orders, including some of his Republican challengers in the upcoming election. The decisions are being made by science, and state officials won’t be intimidated by legal challenges, he said.
“In our system, anyone can file a lawsuit, and it looks like anyone has,” he said.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story for web misstated that five counties will be able to reopen Phase 2 businesses on May 15. They were able to reopen businesses starting Friday, May 8, when the variance was granted, pending guidelines issued by the governor’s office. Additionally, a previous version misstated that Stevens County could move to Phase 2, when Ferry and Pend Oreille counties moved to Phase 2.
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