Practical obstacles, health issues remain
Despite an eagerness to restart the county’s economy, the Okanogan County commissioners and Public Health officials haven’t reached a consensus about what the county needs to safely re-open businesses.
At the Okanogan County Board of Health meeting on Tuesdays (May 12), the commissioners, Community Health Director Lauri Jones, and Health Officer John McCarthy discussed key components of a safe reopening plan.
These elements include rapid point-of-care testing and comprehensive contact tracing of any possible exposures to COVID-19. The county also wants definitive guidelines for businesses and the public about precautions like wearing masks, hand-washing and disinfecting surfaces.
But not all the officials were ready to ask the state for a variance to let Okanogan County reopen sooner.
Washington offered small counties the opportunity to apply for a variance if they meet several conditions, including no new confirmed COVID cases in the past three weeks. But the commissioners and McCarthy agreed that it would be nearly impossible to meet that requirement. Instead, they hope to make a case for what the county does need to reopen.
The county faces practical obstacles. Despite asking for tests every week since the pandemic began, the county still doesn’t have enough to be able to pinpoint infections and know who needs to be quarantined or isolated.
McCarthy stressed the importance of quick, point-of-care tests that would enable people at a crowded workplace like a packing shed to get tested right away to prevent a disease outbreak. The county is close to having enough personal protective equipment, but still needs more to ensure preparedness, he said.
There are several reasons for the gaps in testing. Certain components of tests are still not widely available. Washington state, by aggressively controlling its cases early on, hasn’t received priority for more tests. And counties like Okanogan that have relatively few cases also aren’t at the top of the list, Mid-Valley Hospital physician Jennifer Thill said.
Citing inequities between large national stores that have been booming and small stores that have been closed, Okanogan County Commissioner Andy Hover said he’s eager to jump ahead in the state’s reopening plan.
Washington has given more businesses the green light to reopen – with a lot of caution.
Retail businesses can now offer curbside sales. Vehicle and boat sales can be conducted and landscapers are also allowed to resume work.
There are strict guidelines from the state for each industry.
Retail guidelines include a minimum 6-foot separation between staff and customers at all times, the use of protective gear like masks and gloves for all employees, and regular sanitation. Transactions can be made online, over the phone, or point of sale. Customers will notify the store that they have arrived and wait in their vehicle until the employee delivers the purchased items.
To protect employees, shifts and breaks should be staggered. Employees should be screened for health at the start of each work day.
The commissioners grappled with how to weigh the precarious finances of businesses that have been closed for two months against other ills, such as reported increases in domestic violence, abuse and mental illness. Meanwhile, the county needs to protect the public from a highly contagious, sometimes deadly disease.
“All it would take to overburden our health care system is a doubling of our cases,” Jones said.
Okanogan County has benefited from its natural geographic isolation, Jones said. But McCarthy worries about people traveling to the county from other areas and about risks to agricultural workers as the growing season ramps up.
The commissioners are getting pressure from business owners and residents across the spectrum – some who can no longer abide by the restrictions and others who want the county shut down to tourists.
Despite pleas to keep the situation from becoming politicized, discussions during the past week strayed into the ideological arena.
Gov. Jay Inslee has intentionally created a situation where it’s impossible for any business to reopen, County Commissioner Jim DeTro said at the commissioners’ meeting on May 11. Inslee wants a “rolling moratorium” so the state is still under lockdown during the November elections, DeTro said.
“Public Health isn’t the bad guy – we want to help businesses reopen safely and think a lot can do so,” Jones said. “My job is to keep the entire population safe – and I think we can. It’s not from a partisan perspective.”
“We’re working with everybody. We’re doing the best for pubic health and safety. It’s important to do it with a unified voice,” Jones said.
If people here had experienced more loss and death of people they know, the reaction would be different, County Commissioner Chris Branch said.
Branch advocates providing a clear message to the public so everyone understands how the disease is spread and the steps they need to keep themselves safe. The county needs to make a case to the governor that we’re prepared to take care of businesses and can protect ourselves, he said.
There are ways to prevent the spread of the disease, including covering your cough, washing your hands, disinfecting and wearing masks right now, while scientists continue to learn about the disease, Mid-Valley’s Thill said. The county should focus on preventive measures – and on educating people about following them – so that businesses can re-open while we’re waiting for tests, she said.