Worry that hospitals will be overwhelmed
Although the rise in COVID-19 cases in the Methow Valley and Okanogan County isn’t as steep as elsewhere in the state, community leaders from across the spectrum — health care, law enforcement and education — are sounding the alarm in every way they can to encourage people to protect themselves and their communities.
Just outside the COVID ward at Central Washington Hospital in Wenatchee, a weary and solemn doctor delivered a desperate plea. “Our health care system is on the brink,” Confluence Health CEO Peter Rutherford, said, begging people to wear masks so that hospitals are able to care for everyone who needs medical care.
“We will not make this argument with graphs and data this time. We’ve been there, done that,” Rutherford said.
Rutherford described nurses and physicians who go home every night near tears, only to have to return the next day to “head back into the fight.”
“We need you to stay home and wear your mask whenever you are around people you don’t live with,” Rutherford said — three times — during his two-minute message.
Not only are health care providers worried about being able to care for COVID patients, but they’re also worried that the hospitals will be full and won’t be able to tend to emergencies like sliced fingers, broken bones or appendicitis, Rutherford said.
Laura Wright, chief deputy with the Okanogan County Sheriff’s Office, also recorded a message. As someone who plays a role in protecting and serving the community, Wright said she wears a mask when off- or on-duty and when she’s around others — because she knows that COVID can be spread even by people who don’t feel sick.
Okanogan County Public Health reminded people that this situation — with all its stresses and the limitations on essential interactions with friends and family — is temporary. Everyone is burned out, so it’s tempting to bend the rules, but COVID-19 loves excuses, Public Health said in a video to the community. “Keep masking up. Keep spreading out. Keep groups small. Not forever, but for now.”
In the past week, there were more COVID cases in the Methow Valley — eight in Twisp, two in Winthrop, and one in Carlton. as of Dec. 6. In the previous week, there were nine cases in the valley. While the overall cases in the valley remain relatively low, it’s a big shift from the summer and fall, when the valley went two and a half months without a single case. In all, Okanogan County recorded 49 new cases in the past week.
There were more than 1,100 COVID tests conducted in the Methow Valley last week, with widespread testing of students and staff at the Methow Valley School District, plus free community testing. All tests at the school were negative, school nurse Adriana Vanbianchi said. The school will offer tests again to students after the winter holiday break.
Of 621 tests in the community, there were three positives, according to Public Health, which coordinated the free testing.
The tests for students were optional, but 90% of elementary students participated and 94% of junior high and high school students did, Vanbianchi said. Staff members are tested every other week.
“COVID is here in the valley and there’s community spread, but it’s not being transmitted in the school,” Vanbianchi said. Families are being diligent about keeping kids home if they’re sick or have had exposure, she said.
The school is following strict protocols from the state Department of Health (DOH) regarding symptom checks, family notification and confidentiality. The school notifies anyone who has had a potential exposure so they can take precautions, just as they would for chickenpox or whooping cough, Vanbianchi said.
Schools in the county are doing relatively well — for the most part, younger kids are not getting or transmitting the virus, Okanogan County Health Officer John McCarthy said in an interview last week on KOZI-FM in Chelan. Schools may be safer than bars and other settings where adults congregate, he said.
Because COVID has been spreading so widely, Public Health urges anyone with a sore throat or other symptoms to get tested so they can quarantine to avoid spreading the virus, McCarthy said.
A devastating outbreak at North Valley Extended Care in Tonasket that took the lives of 15 residents has been improving as some residents recover and regain their strength and vitality and the employees who were hospitalized are improving, North Valley reported on Facebook. The deaths at the facility won’t appear in the county’s official tally until death certificates are issued, Okanogan County Community Health Director Lauri Jones said.
In the KOZI interview, McCarthy said that North Valley had followed appropriate steps to protect its residents and staff, but he noted that COVID can be spread rapidly by asymptomatic people.
“The bottom line is, everyone wants the economy open; everyone wants our kids in schools. We need both of those things going on. The way to handle that at this point — the things we can do are — wash your hands, wear your mask. It’s when the protocols get broken that the disease tends to be transmitted,” such as gathering with friends who’ve been “pretty good” about isolating — but really aren’t, McCarthy said.
State extends coronavirus restrictions
Gov. Jay Inslee announced a three-week extension of the state’s current restrictions on gatherings, restaurants and gyms, which will now be in place until Jan. 4, 2021. Inslee announced the extension on Tuesday (Dec. 8).
Inslee also announced additional economic supports for workers and businesses impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
By extending the restrictions, the state hopes to prevent new infections and thereby avert a crisis in hospitals and intensive-care capacity, Inslee said. Almost 80% of the state’s ICU beds are currently occupied by patients with a variety of medical needs, he said.
While cases have been rising steeply, the data doesn’t yet include infections from the Thanksgiving weekend, he said.
The state’s restrictions prohibit people from gathering indoors with anyone outside their household unless they’ve quarantined for 14 days. Outdoor gatherings are limited to five people.
Only outdoor visits are allowed at long-term care facilities. Indoor visits may be permitted for essential-support persons or end-of-life care.
Restaurants and bars are closed for indoor service, but they can offer take-out. Occupancy at retail and grocery stores and for personal services is limited to 25%.
Religious services are restricted to 25% of indoor capacity or 200 people, whichever is less. Choirs and bands are prohibited from performing. Attendance at weddings and funerals is limited, but indoor receptions are prohibited.
The state is offering an additional $50 million to help small businesses and workers weather the prolonged closures. The money doubles the number of Washington small businesses that will receive aid, Inslee said.
Industries recently shut down, including restaurants and fitness centers, as well as music and event venues that have been seen a devastating impact throughout the entire pandemic, have been prioritized, Inslee said.
If Congress doesn’t extend Pandemic Unemployment Assistance by the end of the year, Washington has committed to filling some of the funding gap for residents who aren’t eligible for regular unemployment, Inslee said.