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Eastern Washington will stay in Phase 1 of new COVID-19 restrictions; 633 new cases Friday

UPDATED: Fri., Jan. 8, 2021

With a few exceptions, Spokane County will remain under most coronavirus restrictions come Monday amid high case counts, numerous deaths and hospitalizations.

The county recorded 633 new cases on Friday. Six more people died of COVID-19.

The Department of Health released its new metrics for reopening on Friday, and the whole state will remain in Phase 1 to start.

The new phases, which are evaluated primarily with a focus on hospitalizations as well as the health care system’s capacity to take care of patients, replace the governor’s restrictions put into place over the winter holidays.

“We know that all people in Washington want to move forward as quickly as possible with respect to COVID-19. However, these metrics show that we are just not ready to do so now,” Secretary of Health Umair A. Shah said in a news release. “We have made progress but need to continue to work together to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 across our state.”

Indoor gatherings and indoor dining are still prohibited in Phase 1, while retail and personal services are still allowed at 25% capacity. Gyms and some indoor recreation facilities will be permitted to reopen on Monday, with specific limits on the number of people allowed to participate.

The East region includes all Washington counties along the Idaho border as well as Stevens, Ferry, Adams, Lincoln and Garfield counties.

The state health department calculated both case and hospitalization rates for the region’s population, and while the East region’s case rate is in line with requirements to move forward, hospitalizations are not.

The majority of COVID hospitalizations in the East region are in Spokane County, and as of Friday, there are 119 people in Spokane hospitals receiving treatment for COVID-19.

Washington health officials are also evaluating the capacity of intensive care units before regions can move forward in the new phases. Spokane County has the majority of ICU beds in the East region, which is at 69% occupancy in the last week. To advance in reopening, the region must maintain a level below 90%.

The percentage of people testing positive is too high in Eastern Washington to reopen further. To advance, the region must have a positivity rate of 10% or lower. Currently the East region has one of the highest percent positivity rates in the state at 17%.

This indicates that disease activity in the region remains very high. Friday’s case count of 633 new cases is the third-highest daily count recorded during the pandemic.

Steve Smith, division director at the Spokane Regional Health District, said the high positivity rate also indicates that the region, specifically in Spokane County, is conducting very targeted testing. People with symptoms or in outbreak situations are being tested more rapidly, but also testing positive at higher rates.

Expanding testing to more people, which the district is working on, will help bring this rate down he said.

Interim Health Officer Dr. Francisco Velázquez told the COVID-19 recovery work group this week that the district has convened several different groups of community stakeholders beginning in late December to address the need for expanded testing in the region.

Testing will be vital in the coming months, not only for reopening more businesses but also schools. It is also the most crucial tool to find and stop transmission of the virus.

“Testing is the Sherlock,” Smith said. “We can’t stop this until we find it.”

Slowing the spread of COVID-19 in Spokane County will be vital to bringing the East region to the point of advancing to the next phase of reopening, which is now only determined by numbers and not by applications from individual counties. Every Friday, the Department of Health will update each region’s phases according to the data.

Since Monday, more than 1,800 new cases of the virus have been confirmed in Spokane County, and 32 more people have died.

The Idaho Panhandle continues to see high disease rates as well. The Panhandle Health District confirmed 1,496 cases since Monday, including 222 on Friday. This week 23 Panhandle residents have died from the virus, and there are 94 residents hospitalized .

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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