OLYMPIA – Five Washington counties that for months have had the strictest state restrictions for preventing the spread of COVID-19 moved Tuesday to Phase 2 of the state’s reopening plan.
Meanwhile, Spokane County, which is already in Phase 2, hit a new milestone in the pandemic, topping 8,000 reported cases.
In announcing the upgraded “Safe Start” rules for the five Central Washington counties, Gov. Jay Inslee called it a mark of progress for communities that have “knocked their numbers down dramatically.”
In June, Yakima was reporting 753 cases per 100,000 people; it’s now down to 93 cases per 100,000, he said.
Benton, Franklin, Chelan and Douglas counties are also being moved from modified Phase 1 – which some called Phase 1.5 because of changes made to initial rules – to Phase 2. It’s also a measure of fairness, as some surrounding counties already in Phase 2 have seen their case counts go up, Inslee said.
They join 17 other counties in Phase 2, where Safe Start rules include allowing some larger gatherings for weddings and other services, larger indoor capacity at restaurants and limited public access to libraries, museums and movie theaters.
Inslee said there were no immediate plans to move additional counties with declining case counts to a higher phase or drop others down to a lower one because of increased case counts.
“It doesn’t portend, necessarily, major movements through the phases,” Inslee said at an afternoon news conference. “We’re consistently trying to evaluate this.”
Whitman County remains at the higher Phase 3 despite an increase in cases on the Washington State University campus that may be spreading to the rest of the community. Inslee said state and local health officials are watching closely to see if efforts to slow that spread, which include law enforcement actions and academic sanctions, will have an effect.
“I can’t say we’re actively considering a change,” Inslee said.
Spokane County surpassed the 8,000-case mark Tuesday, with health officials confirming 73 new cases in addition to 41 new cases on Monday. Health officials also confirmed 191 cases over the weekend.
Virus activity in Spokane County continues to accelerate in young adults, particularly those in their 20s, who make up 25% of the county’s 8,247 cases.
Spokane County residents in their 20s, 30s and 40s are driving case counts and make up 53% of the county’s total cases, although the vast majority of hospitalizations and deaths in the county have occurred in residents over 50.
Two more county residents died from the virus in the past three days, bringing the total number of deaths to 178. As of last week, 114 of Spokane County’s deaths due to the virus are associated with outbreaks in long-term care facilities, according to state health data.
Hospitalizations are increasing as well. There are 47 patients receiving treatment in local hospitals for COVID-19, and 37 of them are county residents. Just a week ago, only 27 county residents were hospitalized with the virus.
Spokane County has an incidence rate of more than 200 cases per 100,000 residents, according to the most recent state data, underscoring how virus activity has continued to grow in the Inland Northwest through September and into October.
The Panhandle Health District confirmed 119 new cases on Tuesday, and there are 23 residents from the five-county region hospitalized with the virus.
In an effort to look beyond the pandemic to an eventual recovery, Inslee said Tuesday the state will form a Recovery Working Group. Its goal will be to help state agencies coordinate recovery efforts and “holistically address the challenges.”
The group won’t be making policy but helping to implement it, he said.
The governor also defended comments in recent weeks about why he was correct not to call a special session of the Legislature in the summer to address the pandemic and its likely effects on the state budget.
At the time, projections suggested state tax revenues could drop by almost $9 billion over the next three years because of a declining economy. By last month, the economic outlook had improved and the projected shortfall is about $4.5 billion.
Inslee has said repeatedly he was right to take the steps he could in April to trim the budget and not call a special session where the cuts could have been greater than the state needed.
“The Legislature might’ve made some poor decisions based on faulty economic assumptions,” Inslee said. He added that Republicans “wanted to slash health care funding,” which would be the wrong action to take during a pandemic.
But legislative Republicans have said they never proposed cutting health care spending. Instead they were calling for the state to put any new programs scheduled to start on July 1 on hold and to cancel raises for state employees.
Asked to specify health care cuts proposed by Republican lawmakers in Washington, Inslee replied: “Every single one of these folks supports Donald Trump.”
Trump has said he wants to do away with the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, and has joined a lawsuit coming before the U.S. Supreme Court that could end it. The ACA provides health insurance for about 800,000 state residents through expanded Medicaid and other provisions.
“You can’t support Donald Trump and simultaneously say you want to protect Obamacare,” Inslee said.
He insisted he wasn’t telling people how to vote but said: “Elections have consequences. I think people know where I stand on this issue.”
Arielle Dreher's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story 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.
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