As re-opening begins, local infections rise

County and state governments prepare for long road ahead

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When the first phase of Washington state’s four-phase re-opening plan began May 5, the number of new cases of Covid-19 in Whatcom County was already increasing.

In the week ending May 2, 29 people in Whatcom County tested positive for the coronavirus, up from 11 the previous week and 15 the week before. Many of the new Whatcom County cases are clusters of cases of people who came into contact with each other at small private gatherings or other specific places, county health officials said at a May 4 online media briefing. In total, 319 in Whatcom County have tested positive for the virus and 27 have died from it.

The increase could also be explained by more testing. Locally, the ability to test is improving and the Whatcom County Health Department broadened its recommendations for who should seek testing. The county now encourages all people with symptoms to seek testing. Previously, testing was limited to those with symptoms who also met additional criteria, such as being an essential worker, for example.

Of the 3,201 total test results tracked by the county health department as of May 5, 575 of those results came back since April 28.

On May 5, the percent of positive test results out of total tests in Whatcom County was just under 10 percent. That’s down more than a percentage point in the past week. The statewide positive rate was 7.2 percent on May 4.

Health department officials say Whatcom County has the supplies and ability to test about 2,400 people a week, though the number of people actually being tested per week is a fraction of that.

“It’s really just getting people in to be tested, that’s the limitation – getting people in,” county health department director Erika Lautenbach told Whatcom County Council at its May 5 meeting.

Still, people without symptoms or a referral from a health care provider generally cannot get tested at the county’s drive-through testing site in Bellingham. In a May 4 media briefing, Lautenbach said testing people without symptoms brings up issues about how to limit testing for people who seek it repeatedly, and other “logistical and practical considerations.”

“We recognize that there’s more capacity but we also don’t want to overwhelm the system and not be able to test folks who are symptomatic because we’ve opened it up to asymptomatic individuals,” she said. Some people without symptoms are getting tested, including people who are close contacts of confirmed cases or when there is an outbreak associated with a business or nursing facility.

Health department may test a statistically significant sample

Rather than open up its testing site to those without symptoms, the county health department is exploring testing a statistically significant sample of people at random to get an idea of how widespread the virus is in Whatcom County and how many who are infected don’t have symptoms. Such a test would allow the health department to collect more data for public health purposes and would improve its ability to model the virus’ spread, Lautenbach told county councilmembers.

The health department is working with PeaceHealth and other partners on that idea, Lautenbach said. “We’re probably a couple weeks out before I can give you any real serious details about what that will look like,” she told the council.

Lautenbach also told county council that some local health care providers are exploring doing blood tests that look for Covid-19 antibodies, which would indicate whether a person has had the virus. The presence of antibodies leaves many questions unanswered, Lautenbach said, such as whether a person is fully or partially immune, and how long immunity lasts.

Contact tracing and isolation

Lautenbach also updated the council on the county’s ability to investigate new confirmed cases, and to quarantine and isolate those with new infections – two keys to being able allow more social and economic activity without the virus quickly spreading.

The health department has trained enough staff that it can contact people with new confirmed cases the same day they get their test results, and staff can then get in touch with all their close contacts in one or two days, she said. Those close contacts are then tested and given guidance about quarantining themselves.

Whatcom Unified Command opened a quarantine and isolation facility at a former Bellingham motel in late April. The facility is offered to those with the virus who can’t safely quarantine at home. One person is currently staying there, Lautenbach said.

State releases four-phase plan for re-opening

Washington governor Jay Inslee extended the state’s stay-at-home order through May 31 and announced a four-phase plan to re-open the state beginning May 5. Each phase allows additional categories of businesses to open and increases the size of social gatherings allowed. The first phase, however, does not allow any social gatherings, but re-opens some recreational activities and some lower-risk businesses.

Inslee said that each phase will last at least three weeks. That would mean the second phase won’t begin until at least May 26 and the fourth phase, which allows nearly everything to re-open but recommends high-risk populations still take precautions, could not begin before begin July 28.

Under Inslee’s plan, some smaller counties not hit hard by the virus can apply for a variance to open earlier. Currently, 10 counties are eligible and Whatcom did not make the list. Eligible counties all have less than 30 confirmed cases and zero deaths.

County council to ask governor to allow small businesses to open alongside big box stores

Inslee’s announcement on May 1 that the state’s stay-home order would be extended caused pushback from lawmakers and elected officials across the state, including a lawsuit from a group of Republican state lawmakers.

Locally, county councilmember Ben Elenbaas proposed a county ordinance that would allow more businesses to open ahead of Inslee’s schedule. The proposed ordinance argues that if Walmart, Home Depot, Target and other big box stores can operate, all businesses that offer “like goods and services” should be able to open. 

“I have trust in humanity that these small businesses are going to care as much for their employees as the big box ones do,” Elenbaas said. “I think if Lowe’s, Home Depot and the like can be open, the smaller ones can too, using the same type of mitigation that’s worked.”

The ordinance also proposes that all construction should be able to re-start, since government projects are still operating.

While the rest of council agreed with the ordinance’s intent, county legal counsel cautioned that it could violate state law. The ordinance failed 5–2, with Elenbaas and Tyler Byrd voting for it. Council did unanimously pass a resolution to ask Inslee to consider the changes in the proposed ordinance, in a letter.

UW forecast for U.S. deaths nearly doubles

The University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) now predicts that 135,000 people in the U.S. will die of the respiratory virus by the beginning of August. That’s a sharp increase from IHME’s last forecast, released in mid-April, which estimated that about 72,000 in the U.S. would die by early August.

IHME said in a press release that the revised forecast reflects rising mobility in most U.S. states and the easing of social distancing measures. The model takes into account changes in social distancing mandates, mobility, testing and contact tracing, hospital resources and other factors. 

Across the country, the number of deaths and new cases is declining only slightly, with 25,000 new cases identified most days. There are more than 1.2 million confirmed cases across the U.S., and more than 71,000 have died from Covid-19. Globally, there are about 3.7 million confirmed cases and 258,000 deaths.

No new cases at Stafholt

Good Samaritan Society – Stafholt in Blaine had no new confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the past two weeks, a spokesperson for the South Dakota-based nonprofit said. In total, 17 residents and six workers at the skilled nursing facility have tested positive, said Shawn Neisteadt. One resident of the facility has died from the virus.

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