State sticks to strict health guidelines
Although Okanogan County commissioners and health officials made the case to the state government that the county’s unique geographic circumstances and low COVID-19 infection rate show that the county can move safely to the next phase of re-opening, the county is still awaiting an answer, Okanogan County Community Health Director Lauri Jones said on Tuesday (May 26).
Okanogan County submitted an application for a variance to move to a partial Phase II on Friday (May 21), which would allow more retail establishments to open but would maintain restrictions on restaurants. Washington granted seven more variances over the holiday weekend, for a total of 21 counties in Phase II.
Washington is adhering to strict, data-based guidelines, state health officials said at a news briefing on Tuesday (May 26). Those guidelines include stringent limits for new infections, which Okanogan County doesn’t meet.
Washington still hasn’t determined when the entire state will be ready to move to Phase II, Washington Secretary of Health John Wiesman said at the briefing. All decisions relaxing restrictions and allowing resumption of business and social activity are based on data regarding the number of cases, hospital capacity, availability of COVID tests, personal protective equipment and contact tracing, he said.
The state is telling counties that apply for a variance before they meet the requirements that they are not eligible, Wiesman said. While local health officials have had an opportunity to discuss their individual situations with the state – and to propose modifications to the criteria – the state is adhering to strict standards, Wiesman said.
Although Okanogan County hasn’t met the state’s criteria, the county has unique characteristics, with 42,000 people spread over 5,300 square miles, Okanogan County Health Officer John McCarthy said when he recommended the variance at the county’s Board of Health meeting last week.
Two weeks ago, McCarthy determined that the county’s data didn’t support moving ahead to Phase II. Since then, the county has acquired the necessary tests and protective equipment to move forward, he said.
In addition, the county has “an army of contact tracers,” Jones said. That includes current and retired medical professionals who’ve been trained to contact anyone who may have been exposed to the virus and make sure they have food and other essentials so they can remain quarantined, Jones said.
Jones pointed to other encouraging statistics. The Methow Valley hasn’t had a confirmed COVID case since April 13, and the Colville Indian Reservation hasn’t had a new case since April 28, she said. The county has 46 confirmed cases as of May 26.
The most recent outbreak in the county, involving an extended family in three households in the Brewster area, is isolated, Jones said. “We feel like it’s very well contained and we’re comfortable moving forward” with the variance, Jones told the Board of Health.
Because so many things about this virus are still unknown, Washington set a high bar, initially requiring counties to have no new cases for three weeks before a county could apply for a variance.
That requirement was modified to include counties with fewer than 10 new cases per 100,000 residents over a 14-day period. To meet that requirement, Okanogan County would have to see no more than four new cases in two weeks. In the past two weeks, Okanogan County reported 20 confirmed cases, including two this past weekend.
“We’re in kind of a precarious position because our rates keep climbing,” Jones said. “I’m afraid they’ll keep climbing, because people didn’t follow the governor’s stay-home orders.”
As counties open up, the state is watching to see what happens and if there are new outbreaks. That information may allow them to relax the guidelines, Wiesman said.
State health officials understand that counties have different situations and that some have vast areas with no cases, with all cases concentrated in smaller geographic areas, Wiesman said. Jones talked with Wiesman about the county’s geography and said she hoped the state would work with the county.
If the county’s variance application is rejected, the county should be in a good position to move to Phase II in the next couple of weeks, Jones said.
Even in Phase II, non-essential travel is permitted only within proximity of home. Gatherings are restricted to five people. Outdoor recreation is permissible, but limited to five people beyond a household.
The 50-page variance application included letters from all three county hospitals; Family Health Centers; Okanogan County Community Action Council, which is assisting with isolation and quarantine requirements; the county sheriff; and many business owners; plus charts, graphs and plans. The county commissioners unanimously signed a resolution to accompany the request.
“We feel like we owe it to our citizens to at least pursue this,” Jones said.