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Spokane County Health Board, health officer ask state to consider sooner reopening for Spokane

By Adam Shanks and Arielle Dreher The Spokesman-Review

Spokane County elected officials and Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz say the county is ready for an early move to Phase 2 of the governor’s reopening plan.

Lutz recommends that “consideration be given to provide Spokane County a variance to move” forward into Phase 2 of Gov. Jay Inslee’s Safe Start Washington reopening plan, which would relax restrictions and allow more businesses to reopen.

The Spokane Regional Health District Board of Health, which is predominantly made up of elected officials, adopted a resolution accepting Lutz’s recommendation letter and echoing its support.

The Spokane County Board of Commissioners is expected to vote on the variance request Tuesday.

The catch, however, is no prescribed variance process for a county of Spokane’s size exists, at least not yet. With no variance process or criteria to meet, Lutz looked at the governor’s metrics and reported data accordingly in a letter to the Board of Health.

“I do believe our numbers right now look good, but what those numbers mean in the long-term, I don’t know,” Lutz said, acknowledging things can change quickly in the event of an outbreak.

Spokane County had only four more confirmed cases last weekend, with a total of 386 as of Monday. One more person died from the respiratory virus, raising the number of deaths from COVID-19 in Spokane County to 29. Countywide, hospitalization rates are declining.

Lutz acknowledged the county and health district might have to supply more data to state health officials in order to move ahead to Phase 2. He called the letter a “starting point.”

In Phase 2, retail businesses can open doors, barbers can cut hair, house cleaners can restart operations, new construction is allowed and restaurants can offer limited capacity seating, all subject to specific safety guidelines.

The Department of Health has approved eight counties – all with fewer than 75,000 residents and no new COVID-19 cases in three weeks – to proceed to Phase 2 of Inslee’s Safe Start plan. The department and the governor’s office are considering additional criteria for other counties to reopen. That criteria could include cases per capita.

In a brief 15-minute meeting, with little discussion and one amendment, the health board approved the resolution and County Commissioner Al French said the commission would take up the matter Tuesday.

Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs made an amendment to the Board of Health resolution to more accurately reflect the language used by Lutz in his letter. The distinction, Beggs explained, was Lutz didn’t explicitly request a variance from Inslee’s reopening plan, but asked that “consideration be given” to Spokane County for a request.

The difference was important to Beggs because the state has yet to issue clear guidelines for counties like Spokane.

Beggs voted in favor of the board’s action because he was “supporting our public health officer’s opinion that we’ve done well enough that we should be considered compared to whatever the criteria” ends up being.

“I wouldn’t be comfortable with any politician substituting their knowledge for the public health knowledge,” Beggs said. “I’ve got to put my trust in (Lutz) until I hear something that would undermine it.”

Asked whether he personally believed Spokane was prepared to move into Phase 2, Beggs said, “I don’t know if I can answer that.”

He is fluent with terms and metrics like hospitalizations and intensive care capacity, “but I do not have the depth of experience to know how to weight them,” he said. “That’s my challenge.”

Lutz penned a letter to the Board of Health that detailed different data and ways the county is prepared to move to Phase 2.

“I feel comfortable, and I wouldn’t have written this letter if I didn’t feel comfortable with where we are now and the (governor’s) current opening strategy,” Lutz said.

In his letter, Lutz noted that, with one exception, the daily incidence rate in Spokane County for COVID-19 since April 12, has been below 1.77 new cases per 100,000 residents. The letter lists the region’s efforts that have kept case counts low.It also cites data, such as Spokane County’s daily hospitalizations and case counts, which peaked in late March and early April.

Spokane County has had fewer cases, deaths and outbreaks compared to other urban centers in Eastern Washington. In the letter, Lutz notes there have been cases in seven long-term care facilities or retirement communities and in three adult family homes.

The county has a team of 16 epidemiologists and other health district staff that can do contract tracing and investigations, as well as a dozen volunteers. Testing, while difficult to obtain from a local health district level, is widely available in the county at several health care centers and providers.

Lutz also considered hospital capacity and buy-in from hospitals when he wrote his letter.

Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center and Holy Family Hospital have the bed availability and personal protective equipment to move from Phase 1 to Phase 2. Hospital officials wanted to note the importance of keeping the virus at bay.

“We are also emphasizing that our community members are on the front line in reducing the chance of a second wave of the virus,” a statement from Providence said. “We need additional encouragement to be responsible with social distancing and masking as we move through the reopening process.”

Lutz said social distancing and mask recommendations would not go away.

Arielle Dreher's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is primarily funded by the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, with additional support from Report for America and members of the Spokane community. These stories can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.