Increased pressure on health care providers
Okanogan County is seeing an alarming surge in COVID-19 infections, adding some 100 cases in just 10 days. That brings the county’s total to about 235 confirmed cases since March.
The acceleration and number of infections are beginning to tax the county’s health care providers, Okanogan County Community Health Director Lauri Jones said this week. Three Rivers Hospital in Brewster saw 55 people for COVID symptoms in the emergency room this past weekend, she said.
Most of the cases are in the south county, many among agricultural workers. In other parts of the county, cases have struck people who’ve been traveling and gathering with friends and family from other areas, despite a continuing ban on non-essential travel, Jones said. Many are not following physical-distancing guidelines and some are going to work when they’re sick.
“The Methow Valley is doing a fabulous job so far — I’ll knock on wood,” Jones told the county commissioners on Monday (July 13).
The county can expect the surge to continue, since not all infections from the July 4 weekend have registered yet. The county saw previous spikes after Father’s Day and graduation activities, Jones said.
Okanogan County Commissioner Andy Hover asked Jones what the most important message is to contain the virus.
“It’s the same old mantra that people won’t comply with,” Jones said. “If you don’t have to gather, don’t gather. Be considerate. Wear a mask — you don’t know if you’re asymptomatic,” she said. One person’s behavior doesn’t affect only that individual, but everyone in the community, she said.
“What I hear most often is that people didn’t wear a mask before they got sick, but now that they have COVID, they’re a believer in masks,” Jones said.
The current hot spot is in the south county, where Public Health has been working with Gebbers Farms, the largest grower, to be sure workers have good information, Jones told the county’s Board of Health on Tuesday (July 14). They’re also working to set up isolation camps to protect all the employees.
There are so many cases in the south county — including people with no symptoms — that contact tracers can’t do a thorough job, all increasing the risk of community spread, Okanogan County Health Officer John McCarthy told the Board of Health. The county has been seeing “sicker, younger” people, Jones said.
With Central Washington Hospital in Wenatchee treating 20 COVID patients from throughout the region and seven on ventilators, the county has begun talking with the state to plan for an alternative health care facility, Jones said.
The county still needs three or four times the number of tests, McCarthy said.
As Washington has allowed counties to move through phases of re-opening, people across the state think it means they can do whatever they want, McCarthy said. The governor has paused any advancement to a new phase because of growing case numbers.
When contact tracers talk to people, what’s initially described as a trip to Spokane for a haircut sometimes turns out to include where they went shopping, where they ate, and the relatives who joined them from California, Jones said.
Although Public Health isn’t an enforcement agency, if a food establishment they license is not complying with health regulations, they can revoke the permit, Jones said.
When Public Health gets calls about businesses or customers refusing to comply with the state’s mandatory mask regulations, they start with a courtesy call. If the problem persists, they pass it on to the state Department of Labor & Industries, Environmental Health Director Dave Hilton said.
The commissioners have been tracking the outbreak in different ways. The county commissioners asked Jones for an update on the COVID situation in the county on Monday. Hover was concerned that many more people in the county are becoming infected and that more are being hospitalized.
County Commissioner Jim DeTro mentioned a report he’d seen on TV that there are fewer deaths from COVID than from medical malpractice last year. DeTro also asked if the rumors about cases in extended-care facilities the county were true. Last week Public Health reported COVID cases at Regency Harmony House Rehabilitation & Nursing Center in Brewster in its official update.
County Commissioner Chris Branch hoped that the county’s new COVID website [see box] could be used to educate people about disease rates and effects on young people as many areas of the country are “sliding backwards,” he said.
“Saying ‘slide backwards’ is very gracious. They’ve jumped off cliffs,” Jones said.
Funding Public Health
Jones and McCarthy pleaded with the Board of Health for more funding to relieve overworked Public Health staff and be able to do the necessary work to control the virus. Jones and Public Health Nurse Brian Pyper have been working seven days a week since March and, as exempt employees, neither has received extra compensation.
Public Health also needs money to hire additional staff to expand contact tracing and review re-opening plans from businesses and schools. “We all know this isn’t going away. The work’s just beginning,” Jones said.
Okanogan County has pledged 25% of its federal CARES Act funding — about $560,000 — to Public Health, Hover said. The commissioners and Public Health are working through the logistics and trying to ensure that the money can be put toward public health long term.
The county also has money in its reserve fund to put toward Public Health, Hover said.
Jones explained one entry on the financial report — a security camera Public Health bought and installed at her home because she has received so many threats during the pandemic.
New COVID website
Okanogan County Public Health is launching a new website dedicated to clear, factual information about COVID-19.
The site will include evidence-based research, science, infographics, and signage for businesses about mask-wearing and other practices to keep people safe. The website will also post the county’s COVID updates and information from the governor and the Department of Labor & Industries.
The site will be accessible through a link on the county pages for Public Health and Emergency Management and of towns and cities. It is expected to be live this week.
The site is being paid for by a grant from the North Central Accountable Community of Health.