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Responding to criticism from Woodward, Spokane health district explains COVID-19 procedures

UPDATED: Thu., Nov. 12, 2020

The Spokane Regional Health District issued a statement Sunday supportive of Gov. Jay Inslee's new restrictions on businesses.   (JESSE TINSLEY)
The Spokane Regional Health District issued a statement Sunday supportive of Gov. Jay Inslee's new restrictions on businesses.  (JESSE TINSLEY)

The Spokane Regional Health District responded this week to recent criticism and questions of its COVID-19 response levied by Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward.

In what amounted to a defense of the actions taken under the leader it recently fired, health officer Dr. Bob Lutz, the district explained why it turned down a city offer to use librarians as contact tracers and increase COVID-19 testing in Spokane homeless shelters.

In a letter to the Board of Health ahead of its vote to fire Lutz last week, Woodward called the news of Lutz’s potential removal the “best news I’ve heard in a long time.”

The comment raised concerns from some elected leaders, but Woodward doubled down on her criticism of the former health officer in an interview with The Spokesman-Review published on Tuesday, describing him as unwilling to entertain varying opinions.

The Spokane Regional Health District responded to two points of Woodward’s criticism of Lutz after receiving questions submitted by The Spokesman-Review.

Woodward lamented that the health district turned down the city’s offer this spring to use librarians who were available to take on additional work during the shutdown early in the pandemic as contact tracers.

In an email, health district spokeswoman Kelli Hawkins explained the complexity of hiring contact tracers who are tasked with determining who may have been exposed to the coronavirus. Several groups have reached out and offered to help the health district, but “it’s not that easy,” Hawkins said.

“They need training, access to our databases, coaching and access to experts when needed,” Hawkins said.

The Health District ultimately contracted with the Public Health Institute in July for 27 contact tracers and hired 10 of its own, Hawkins said.

“They are all tied into the same reporting system for seamless case (and) contact management,” Hawkins said.

The health district reached out to librarians again in October, Hawkins said, but by then they only had about five hours a week to spare as libraries continue to slowly reopen.

“We decided to use them for research on a variety of projects that we didn’t have time for, such as compiling the list of all testing sites in the county,” Hawkins said.

Woodward also accused Lutz of turning down her push for increased testing in homeless shelters following a positive case at the temporary shelter established in the Spokane Arena, which has since closed.

Lutz allegedly told Woodward to call the health district’s spokesperson with questions and concerns, not him.

The health district has had protocols in place to isolate COVID-19 patients from other shelter residents, Hawkins said.

“Testing is more complex than simply having the necessary supplies. All along, we have implemented an effective strategy with the shelters that includes mobile triage every evening to evaluate individuals for symptoms,” Hawkins said.

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