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State health officials ask residents to stop socializing and alter holiday plans as COVID-19 cases soar

By Arielle Dreher and Alayna Shulman The Spokesman-Review

Plan on a small Thanksgiving this year and consider not socializing until then, state and local health officials warned on Tuesday as they sounded the alarm about skyrocketing COVID-19 cases in Washington state.

“We think the most serious consequences are yet to come from this virus, and if we don’t act, those can be severe,” Secretary of Health Dr. John Wiesman told reporters on Tuesday.

Cases are surging statewide and in all age groups. In Spokane County, there have been about 1,500 people infected this month. That’s brought impending stress on hospitals and the health care system that will have to take care of the sickest patients in the coming weeks.

Health officials stopped short of announcing renewed restrictions on businesses and schools, but all options are on the table.

The surge paints a grim outlook for the upcoming holiday season. Families will be asked to keep others safe by staying apart in hopes of not infecting loved ones.

The rise in cases also arrives as Spokane County’s leading public health agency attempts to regroup after the controversial firing of health officer Dr. Bob Lutz. Many members of the Spokane Regional Health District Board of Health have avoided requests for interviews amid the most serious wave of coronavirus infections to date. The health district won’t make new interim health officer Dr. Francisco Velazquez available for interviews until Thursday.

In the meantime, State Health Officer Kathy Lofy asked Washington residents Tuesday to reconsider social gatherings.

“We should probably all stop socializing for the next several weeks to try to slow down the spread of disease through our state,” she said.

“And if you need to socialize, please limit (gatherings) to no more than five people per week and keep interactions as short as possible.”

In Spokane County, social gatherings are leading to outbreaks among people who then spread it to their workplaces or in public.

Hospitalizations are expected to increase in the coming weeks in Spokane County, with more than 1,000 cases confirmed in the past week or so in Spokane County. Large case counts have led to spikes in hospitalizations this year.

On Tuesday, the Spokane Regional Health District confirmed 137 new cases. There are 75 people receiving treatment for the virus in local hospitals, and 62 of them are county residents.

Dr. John McCarthy, a Spokane physician and Okanogan County Public Health Officer, said he doesn’t think people will be able to resist gathering during the holiday season and expects case counts to grow.

“I think we are not used to making these kinds of sacrifices, and we will have a hard time doing it,” McCarthy said. “Until it hits harder home than it appears to be hitting home now, it appears to be an uphill battle.”

Absent a public face during the pandemic, McCarthy said Spokane County is not helped by its elected leaders.

“There will be deaths that result from the Board of Health’s decision to fire Bob Lutz, who whether they like him or not, or whether he was difficult to work with or not, he was protecting lives,” McCarthy said. “His absence will lead to more lives lost.”

State health officials made it clear that the health care system and hospital capacity is tightening, leading them to make such an urgent plea to residents in the midst of the fall surge of cases.

Looking to the fallout from Thanksgiving in Canada, which occurred in mid-October, Lacy Fehrenbach, deputy secretary of health, warned that holidays must look different this year.

“We cannot afford this in Washington state; any in-person gathering is risky right now for the health of those,” Fehrenbach said, noting that this includes Thanksgiving.

“The safest Thanksgiving is the one celebrated with your immediate household,” she said. “This is the safest option at this time.”

She said if people want to gather for Thanksgiving, they should do so in groups of no more than five. They should do so outdoors with masks, and seriously consider a two-week quarantine beforehand.

The Spokane Regional Health District is receiving assistance from the state Department of Health to help with case investigations. Epidemiologists are experiencing a six-day streak of more than 100 cases (and in some instances, more than 200 or 300) reported each day.

A team of 17 disease investigators, along with 27 staff members from the Public Health Institute, are still able to reach out to residents with a positive test result within 24 hours of receiving their results.

Case and contact investigations are most effective when case counts are low, however, Dr. Jeff Duchin, King County public health officer, told reporters Tuesday.

“The idea is to suppress transmission of the virus to the greatest degree possible and use case and contact investigation resources as quickly as possible,” he said. “… The more (cases) there are, the harder it is to do, and if people aren’t isolating or quarantining in a timely way, that leads to more transmission.”

Elsewhere in the Inland Northwest, cases are also climbing.

The Panhandle Health District confirmed more new cases than Spokane County on Tuesday, with 177. There are 51 residents from the five-county region hospitalized.

Katherine Hoyer, a public information officer for the district, said some of the lack of vigilance comes from myths and falsehoods about the virus.

“I truly believe there’s a lot of misinformation out there, and it’s more of an infodemic, if you will,” she said. “I think people are having a hard time filtering out the truth … it’s happening nationwide.”

But there’s also just “pandemic fatigue,” she said.

“We are concerned if people are not changing their behaviors and taking the precautions,” Hoyer said. “On top of all of that, we also realize that … people are tired of taking the precautions.”

Hoyer said when the district announced its first positive test, for example, “it was surprising.”

But as the daily caseloads grew, the surprise doesn’t seem to have grown with it.

“We were all, you know, maybe a little frazzled. And then we were getting 10 to a dozen cases a day, and that was surprising, and then in July and August, maybe we were announcing 30-plus cases a day and now … October, November, we’re announcing 100 to 200 cases a day,” Hoyer said. “We’re at the worst point of the pandemic right now. And it could get worse.”

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.