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News >  Spokane

Shawn Vestal: Lutz is far from the first to seek an early reopening, but he’s the most important

Spokane County Health Officer Bob Lutz answers questions during a press conference in March 2020. Eighteen new cases of the novel coronavirus were confirmed in Spokane on Sunday, a possible result of increased testing and contact tracing, Lutz said. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane County Health Officer Bob Lutz answers questions during a press conference in March 2020. Eighteen new cases of the novel coronavirus were confirmed in Spokane on Sunday, a possible result of increased testing and contact tracing, Lutz said. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

This is it. What we’ve been waiting for. The right voice.

Lots of people, after all, have been demanding that Spokane County be allowed to move most quickly down the path toward reopening the economy than the rest of the state. But there’s really only one voice that can truly ensure the move toward reopening is based on good, sober science and a concrete plan to build a testing regimen into the process.

It’s Dr. Bob Lutz, our county health officer. On Monday, Lutz lent his voice to the call for an early opening here.

The Board of Directors of the Spokane Regional Health District voted to endorse a letter from Lutz, asking Gov. Jay Inslee to consider allowing Spokane County to move into the second phase of the reopening plan sooner than the rest of the state. Whether Inslee will approve it remains to be seen, but we can all feel good, finally, about this request because it comes from Lutz and not a cadre of politicians.

We’ve always needed more than the mayor’s tweets and the county commission’s letters to Inslee as a foundation on which to build a safe, responsible reopening.

Now we have it. And it’s based on good science and a plan for fighting the virus going forward.

Crucially, Lutz’s request is founded on his belief that the district has created a way to test enough people that when we find the sick ones, we can trace the path of the disease through their contacts and isolate them. He outlines this plan in his letter to the governor, along with the statistics showing that Spokane’s cases, hospitalizations and deaths have been consistently below the rest of the state.

Too many people have seen our low case counts as the only factor in reopening. But in a time without a vaccine, it’s the test-trace-isolate regimen that is the most important consideration. It is the obvious, absolute requirement for a responsible reopening, and Lutz waited until he had it before getting on board.

In an interview last week, Lutz talked about this strategy as a way of “boxing in” the virus, to allow things to begin to reopen responsibly. This is vital because reopening will all but certainly lead to more COVID-19 cases. If the county can test-trace-isolate, it can shut the cases down before they spread, Lutz said.

He likened it to opening a door very cautiously, while remaining poised to slam it shut if need be.

Too many other states are throwing open the door while ignoring the epidemiologists. Politics is overriding public health at every turn, from the top down. State after state is letting down its guard despite having failed to meet any of the guidelines for doing so set out by the federal government. Forecasters are now predicting higher death rates as a result. Denialism, conspiratorial nonsense and bad science are flooding the public dialogue.

Lutz’s performance, by contrast, fits into a statewide approach that has been aggressively public-health-focused and remarkably effective. It now seems – despite the near-continuous political ankle-biting Inslee has endured – that Washington had the most effective strategy against the virus of any state in the country. That’s true whether you pick over the stay-home order for inconsistencies or feel the West Side dragged the East in its wake here.

If you don’t agree about the overall plan’s effectiveness, though, check out New York state – now believed to have been the gateway for most cases nationwide. Then keep an eye on the rural states thumbing their noses at the virus and see how that goes.

Lutz has kept a cautious hold on the reins as the political pressure to reopen Spokane County earlier has grown. He oversaw a response that was focused on handling a much bigger surge in cases than we ended up having, thankfully. He’s been sober, methodical and cautious about supporting a reopening, even as the calls for Inslee to give us a hall pass intensified from Mayor Nadine Woodward and county commissioners.

Woodward, notably, went on a social media tear last week after a conference call among the governor and local officials. In a series of tweets, she criticized the governor’s “unrealistic” standard for reopening Spokane County, noted that it was mostly old people who get the disease, and relayed an anecdote about one woman struggling with her effort to stay sober because she couldn’t go to her gym right now.

It was a wild and woolly display, and Woodward had to backpedal from her incorrect statements about the governor’s policy, as everyone else involved in the call came forward to correct her. (Woodward had claimed Inslee’s standard for an early-open variance was three weeks with no new cases; that is the standard for small counties. Larger counties like ours can make requests, but – as we’re about to find out – there are not yet concrete standards for those variances).

It was a performance wholly unsuited for instilling confidence in a responsible reopening.

Lutz, on the other hand, nailed it. His letter to the governor bases its arguments on the three areas the state plan has relied on: the numbers of cases, hospitalizations and deaths; the best modeling data going forward; and information about mobility of residents. We look good on those measures. Lutz also noted our health care system readiness is strong, and noted there are aggressive local efforts to overcome challenges in obtaining enough tests and protective gear – problems that continue to plague the response nationwide.

And he said the district is ready to test-trace-isolate and is now assigning an epidemiologist to do contact-tracing on every positive case in the county.

The Health District’s board of directors, made up of elected officials from county governments, approved the request Monday in a special meeting, and it’s off to the governor.

It’s far from the first such request Inslee will have heard from Spokane County.

But it’s the one that should matter most.

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