Staff infections temporarily close Twisp FHC clinic
Medical clinics have adapted to the risks of COVID-19 with comprehensive screenings of everyone who comes through their door, and outdoor exam rooms where doctors and nurses in full protective gear evaluate patients with COVID symptoms.
But with the spread of the virus so aggressive in the county, clinic staff, like everyone else, may contract the virus through interactions in the community.
Family Health Centers (FHC) in Twisp had to close its doors to in-person appointments for a week earlier this month after two staff members tested positive, Chief Health Officer Jim Wallace said. The clinic continued to provide care through telemedicine.
All staff and patients entering the Twisp clinic are screened for symptoms, temperature, known exposures, and any travel within the past 14 days. But when the two staffers became infected, the clinic stopped all in-patient services while staff investigated whether they’d been exposed at the clinic or out in the community, Wallace said.
The clinic reopened last week after confirming that there had been no one with COVID in the clinic for 14 days. The investigation and testing found there had been no transmission in the clinic — no one who worked with the individuals got sick and no patients had had close contact with them, Wallace said. The staffers — who aren’t being identified to protect privacy — had mild cases and have recovered.
“Employees have tested positive at various sites — it’s the nature of all businesses and all individual lives in this pandemic,” Wallace said. “People catch it.”
Confluence Health’s Methow Valley Clinic in Winthrop has had only one staff member who’s contracted COVID — a mild case, said Mike Tuggy, physician manager of the Winthrop and Brewster clinics.
The Methow Valley Clinic is doing in-person visits and has an outbuilding where staff see patients with fever, cough or other COVID symptoms, Tuggy said. And now that all of the staff has been immunized, COVID transmission risk is exceedingly low, he said.
Because COVID is so widespread — and even someone without symptoms can be contagious — health clinics and businesses across the county have found themselves in the same position — having to make sure the workplace is safe for staff and the public. Sometimes that means a temporary closure or switching to curbside service.
Exposures can happen anywhere, like a grocery store or barbershop or church, and it’s not uncommon to learn that a contact from a few days earlier has become ill, Wallace said. “We’re unfortunately not immune from COVID,” he said.
In fact, health care settings are typically safer than other places because of their strict precautions. “I feel safer in the clinic and hospitals than in many other community settings,” Wallace said.
Even the most-thorough screenings can miss cases, since not everyone registers symptoms or people don’t know they’ve been exposed, Wallace said.
Because there’s no 100%-effective way to keep the virus at bay, public health professionals recommend an approach with so many layers that at least one will block the virus. Wallace said this is sometimes depicted as a stack of slices of Swiss cheese. No single measure — wearing a mask, social distancing, screening, testing, isolation or quarantine — is foolproof on its own, but when each slice is stacked on top of the others, chances are the holes will be covered up.
With a disease that spreads as easily as COVID, Wallace had words of caution about spreading rumors. “There are theories about where an infection comes from, but finger-pointing and shaming are really unfortunate,” he said. “Oftentimes, without the full truth, people latch onto truths that may not be right, instead of the harder-to-swallow reality.”
Everyone needs to learn what they can from an incident to prevent further spread. “The more we can share and learn to do better next time, the faster we can all get through this,” Wallace said.
County COVID cases drop slightly
With the Martin Luther King Holiday and the cyber attack that affected all of Okanogan County’s computers early in the week, including Public Health, recent data for new COVID infections cover only three days last week, from Jan. 12 through 14. In those three days, the county added 34 cases, two in Twisp. The new cases follow the trend the county has seen over the past several months, with cases in towns across the county and no regional outbreaks.
Because COVID cases are cropping up throughout the county, this is a dangerous time, since any one place could surge out of control, said Wallace, who’s also the county’s health officer.
Three county residents are hospitalized with the disease. Deaths in the county remain at 32. The total number of people who’ve been infected with COVID is 1,921 — almost 5% of the county’s population.
The county’s rate of infections per 100,000 population over two weeks has continued to fall, and is now at 316.
Although some people did travel and gather over the holidays, most seem to have heeded cautions and hunkered down, indicated by the fact that the county hasn’t seen a bigger surge, Wallace said. “I have the greatest appreciation for the restraint much of the population is following,” he said.