Precautions taken by schools, county
With Washington holding the grim distinction of the first confirmed case of the new coronavirus in the United States — and the only deaths in this country from the disease — local health officials and the Methow Valley School District have ramped up their contingency planning.
As of Tuesday (March 3), there were 27 confirmed cases in Washington and nine deaths from COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, all in Western Washington. Health officials are awaiting test results for individuals in Wenatchee and in Grant, Stevens and Yakima counties. Another 231 people in the state are under public health supervision.
As health officials grapple with what the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) calls “an emerging, rapidly evolving situation,” data on confirmed cases varies. One tally put the total at more than 100 in 15 states as of Monday (March 2). The CDC says 60 cases have been reported in 12 states.
While the coronavirus has received substantial coverage as global health officials try to stem the spread of the new disease, it hasn’t struck as many people as the flu. There have been 74 deaths from the flu in Washington, including six children, since the start of this year’s flu season in October, according to the Washington Department of Health (DOH). In the past three years, flu deaths in the state have ranged from 245 to 296.
Nevertheless, local officials are taking the “when, not if” approach to the coronavirus. The Methow Valley School District sent a letter to families and posted information on its website about the disease this week. “At present, we are unaware of any confirmed cases and we have been informed that the risk remains very low,” the district said on Monday (March 2). The district emphasized that it is taking the threat seriously.
“It’s not when — but where — the first confirmed outbreak will be in our region,” School District Superintendent Tom Venable said this week. “Our priority is the safety of students and staff.”
Okanogan County Public Health is taking the lead on the local response, working with the county’s Department of Emergency Management, hospitals and clinics, and first responders. Contingencies include procedures for transportation and decontamination if there are local cases, County Emergency Manager Maurice Goodall said.
The county is focusing on educating people about preventive measures to keep the illness from spreading, such as having friends pick up food for you if you’re sick. “Have your network in place so you don’t have to go to the store — don’t spread it,” Goodall said.
The school nurse is working with staff to teach students how to wash their hands properly with warm, soapy water for 20 seconds. The district is cleaning and disinfecting the schools, classrooms and buses, Venable said.
“The response has been really positive. Staff and parents appreciate the proactive response and the information about current steps and preparing for the unknown — for example, an extended school closure,” Venable said. But he acknowledged that “there’s certainly some fear for all of us — parents, staff, community members — of the unknown,” he said.
The district is planning for an extended school closure if necessary, including the use of technology to conduct classes remotely. Beyond academics, many students rely on the schools for basic needs such as meals and other services, and school staff are working to be sure these needs are covered, Venable said.
The first case of COVID-19 in the United States was confirmed in Washington at the end of January. Washington, Oregon and California have all reported the virus in people with no history of travel to a high-risk area.
“We are seeing what is called ‘community transmission’ of the virus,” where people with no travel history or known contact with someone with travel history are contracting the virus, Jamie Nixon, an assistant public information officer for DOH, said.
Health officials expect cases to rise as more tests are completed. Testing in the United States was reportedly delayed by several factors. The initial test developed by the CDC was faulty and the agency had imposed strict criteria for who could be tested. Last week, the CDC provided a new test and relaxed the criteria.
Currently, Washington’s Public Health Laboratory is performing tests. If a test is positive, the state counts it as a confirmed positive and sends the sample to CDC for verification, Nixon said. Washington hopes to bring commercial labs online soon for testing, she said.
Health officials expect the disease to spread widely throughout the country, although the risk of exposure — even in communities in Washington with confirmed cases — is relatively low, according to DOH.
The risk is higher for people who have had close contact with persons with COVID-19 and for health care workers. Travelers returning from affected international locations are have an elevated risk of exposure.
There are no specific treatments for illnesses caused by coronaviruses. Most people have mild symptoms and recover on their own, according to DOH. Most serious cases of the disease have been in people with compromised immune systems and in the elderly.
There is no specific antiviral treatment, but people can seek medical care to relieve symptoms. Currently, there are no vaccines to prevent coronavirus infections.
Although coronavirus originated in China, DOH stressed that the disease is not connected with race, ethnicity or nationality.
Reporter Malcolm Griffes contributed to these articles.
How is coronavirus spread?
• by coughing and sneezing.
• close personal contact, such as touching or shaking hands.
• touching an object or surface with the virus on it, then touching your mouth, nose, or eyes before washing your hands.
What are the symptoms?
• similar to flu or cold — runny nose, headache, cough, sore throat.
Symptoms appear 2 to 14 days after exposure.
When to call your health care provider
• fever over 100.5 degrees.
• shortness of breath or difficulty breathing.
Anyone with these symptoms should call their health care provider, Okanogan County Public Health at (509) 422-7140, or the state Department of Health at 800-525-0127 before going to a healthcare facility. Health care providers will determine if a test is needed.
Protecting yourself and others
• Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
• Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol if soap and water are not available.
• Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands.
• Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
• Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze, then throw the tissue in the trash and wash your hands.
• Clean and disinfect objects and surfaces.
• Stay at home and away from others if you are feeling ill.
For more info
• Washington Department of Health call center: 1-800-525-0127 (press #).
Make your own hand sanitizer
Hand sanitizer stock has run low in the Methow Valley, but thanks to a reader-submitted recipe, you can make your own at home.
Hand sanitizer is highly effective in removing germs from hands, according to the Centers for Disease Control. However, users are advised to wash their hands, especially if they are covered in dirt or oil, for the most effective results. Hand washing is a good practice and when done correctly is one of the best ways to remove germs.
While local stores work to restock hand sanitizer, here’s the DIY recipe:
• 2/3 cup 99% rubbing alcohol (isopropyl alcohol) or ethanol
• 1/3 cup aloe vera gel
• 8-10 drops essential oil (such as lavender, vanilla, tea tree), feel free to get creative here.
Mix ingredients together by whisking in a bowl.
Store in an old pump-top soap container, or a glass jar.
Our thanks to June Fitzpatrick. The recipe has not been tested by the Methow Valley News staff.
Local impacts of coronavirus
There are no cases of coronavirus in the Methow Valley, but the disease has nevertheless had its local effects.
Valley resident Kim Frey recently visited her mother at the skilled nursing facility near Seattle where there have been several confirmed cases of COVID-19. Her mother is doing well, Frey said.
“I am doing my best to be cautious, washing my hands, staying out of public places,” Frey said this week by text message from Seattle.
“People want control over this, but no man, city, or country has that. What we control is how we respond under pressure, how we affect everyone around us. People are eager to point a finger at others who are doing their best to do their jobs and care for people,” she said.
Frey said she chooses to take comfort in the words of Jesus. “He said, ‘In this world you will have trouble, but take heart, I have overcome the world,’” she said.
In Twisp, Ulrich’s Valley Pharmacy and Hank’s Harvest Foods had both completely sold out of hand sanitizer by Monday (March 2). “We ordered 10 cases,” said Carlan Nielsen, Hank’s assistant manager, “but they’ve only sent us two.” The store’s hand sanitizer supplier has started rationing shipments nationwide, she said.
The Methow Valley Senior Center posted notices on their front door — in English and Spanish — telling visitors to come back another time if they’re sick. “We put the posters out last Thursday,” said Donna Cother, who runs the kitchen at the Senior Center, “just to keep our seniors safe.”
Still, lunch on Monday drew the usual attendance, although one diner said he’d altered his plans the night before. “We didn’t go to the contra dance the other night — we were worried about germs being spread,” he said.