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‘We’re not done with omicron’: Northeast Washington school districts continue to shirk mask requirements

UPDATED: Fri., Feb. 18, 2022

A stand-alone space for COVID-19 testing and care, picture on Jan. 10, 2022, was stationed outside Providence St. Joseph’s Hospital in Chewelah in Stevens County.  (Jonathan Brunt/The Spokesman-Review)
A stand-alone space for COVID-19 testing and care, picture on Jan. 10, 2022, was stationed outside Providence St. Joseph’s Hospital in Chewelah in Stevens County. (Jonathan Brunt/The Spokesman-Review)

Despite some local school districts shirking the statewide mask mandate in northeastern Washington, health officials there warn that omicron still presents a significant risk to residents and puts pressure on local hospitals.

The Kettle Falls School District, as well as the Colville School District, removed mask mandates for students this week, which the governor confirmed on Thursday violates state law.

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction had sent out notices to both school districts as of Friday, alerting them of their violations.

“We will need to see official confirmation from the districts themselves that they are coming into compliance, and as far as I know, we haven’t seen that yet,” Katy Payne, a spokesperson for OSPI, wrote in an email on Friday.

OSPI also sent a similar notice to the Richland School District, where the school board amended its resolution to comply with the date set by the governor for the end of the mask mandate: March 21.

School districts risk fines and penalties from the Department of Labor and Industries, as well as potentially jeopardizing state and federal funding through OSPI, if they do not comply with the statewide mask mandate. Masks are required to be worn in schools by teachers and students.

Health leaders at the Northeast Tri-County Health District said they will continue to work with school districts to offer testing and other support. However, they added that just because cases are declining, does not mean the region is free of omicron.

“We’re not done with omicron, and we’ll still be dealing with it after March 21,” Health Officer Dr. Sam Artzis told reporters Friday.

Schools have been high-risk for transmission due to the nature of gatherings in those settings, said Matt Schanz, administrator at the health district, which is why things like masks are important.

The hospital system in the northeastern parts of the state remains stressed in some areas. Newport Hospital has had no available acute care beds for eight days so far in February, due to the high volume of COVID patients. The rural hospital’s COVID census has hovered around five patients, a high for the 24-bed facility.

Additionally, health officials warned that even though omicron might be mild for many, some children are still hospitalized with the virus in the Inland Northwest. The omicron wave has affected many children compared to earlier waves , data from the state show.

From Jan. 23 to Feb. 6, there were 4,458 cases confirmed in children and teens in Adams, Ferry, Lincoln, Pend Oreille, Spokane, Stevens and Whitman counties.

In the last two weeks for which data is available, there have been two additional deaths in kids and teens due to COVID-19 in the state. In total, since January 2021, there have been 15 children and teens who have died from COVID-19 in Washington.

Artzis said that while kids might do better than adults with the virus, kids aren’t insulated from infecting more vulnerable people.

There’s a risk in school settings with no mask mandates to older or pregnant staff members, as well as anyone who is immunocompromised. When no one wears masks except the person who is immunocompromised, it lowers the effectiveness of masking, he added.

Artzis said the health district will continue to offer assistance to all local school districts.

Here’s a look at local numbers

The Spokane Regional Health District reported 205 new COVID-19 cases and no additional deaths on Friday.

There are 156 patients hospitalized in Spokane with the virus.

The Panhandle Health District reported 107 new COVID-19 cases and now has 4,250 backlogged cases.

There are 80 Panhandle residents hospitalized with the virus.

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.

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