Okanogan Public Health: some cases linked to church event
Twisp is experiencing its most severe COVID outbreak since the start of the pandemic 18 months ago. In the past month, Twisp has had 29 cases. Another two cases have been confirmed in Winthrop and four in Carlton in that time frame.
The outbreak accounts for 35% of the total cases in Twisp (83 since March 2020), according to statistics from Okanogan County Public Health. June 21 was the first time a single-day tally for Twisp hit the double digits, with 11 cases reported. The Methow Valley went for two and a half months last summer and fall with no reported COVID cases.
Public Health has been investigating the outbreak to trace potential exposures. The COVID cases are “directly linked to a church gathering and potluck that took place on May 30,” Public Health said on its Facebook page, urging people to get tested.
Public Health still doesn’t have a complete understanding of the extent of the outbreak, which was associated with a church in the Methow Valley, because not everyone with symptoms got tested, Okanogan County Health Officer James Wallace said.
“The majority of cases in the Methow are in one way or another connected to that event or several events around that time. We don’t know of any spread not connected with the event,” Wallace said.
Several people have been quite sick, but no one has been hospitalized from the outbreak, Okanogan County Community Health Director Lauri Jones said. None of the people who’ve been sick had been vaccinated, Wallace said.
“We’re trying really hard to explore this outbreak and prevent the spread into the broader community,” Wallace said. “Our biggest concern is that there are cases out there that are undetected.”
Public Health doesn’t name organizations or individuals who are part of their case investigations, Wallace said. Case investigations are intended to control the spread of the virus, not to point fingers, Jones said.
The people they’ve talked with have been very cooperative and have done a great job following Public Health’s recommendations, Wallace said. He spoke with the pastor of the church last week and was encouraged by the pastor’s commitment to the health and well-being of the congregation and the community, Wallace said.
“To me, this drives home the importance of understanding what COVID is, and how it passes through individuals, groups and the community,” Wallace said. “COVID is very sneaky — people can have no or minimal symptoms” and still infect others. Cases quickly spread exponentially, he said.
Not everyone who should have quarantined after the event did, which allowed COVID to spread at other locations, Wallace said. “There’s a snowball effect,” where people are out and about before they have symptoms, potentially infecting other people, Jones said.
If people don’t want to go to the doctor or be tested, they should still isolate for 10 days after the onset of symptoms. People who may have been exposed to someone with COVID should quarantine for 14 days, Wallace said. “That’s the best, most efficient way to decrease the spread in the community,” he said.
Message to congregation
Although the church that held the event hasn’t been identified by Public Health, Interim Pastor Drew Rushlow of Cascade Bible Church in Twisp spoke about illnesses in the congregation in a five-minute talk before an online church service on June 20. The church has held services online for the past several weeks.
Rushlow said in an email to the Methow Valley News that he was concerned about “false information and hearsay” and that he would be available for an interview later this week.
In the video, Rushlow sought to explain the situation and reassure the congregation. “In the middle of June 2021 — CBC has encountered a little bit of — a couple of people in the midst of our congregation ended up becoming, had some type of flu-like symptoms, and in the midst of those symptoms, several people ended up self — staying home — just so that we don’t spread anything around,” Rushlow said.
“And so, myself in particular, encountered some symptoms and some things that were a little bit alarming, and I say ‘alarming’ because I lost my sense of taste and smell and started developing some fatigue and had a little bit of a head cold, and felt like it may try to creep down into my chest area,” Rushlow said.
He also developed a cough, but has recovered. “I was able to take my own supplements that some other friends shared with me, and vitamin-oriented things to kind of boost my immune system and what-not, and I pulled through just fine,” he said.
Rushlow specifically mentioned COVID-19 only once. “I know that the question has surfaced about COVID-19, and I want to make mention that myself, I didn’t go through the process of being tested, but I don’t have any understanding of anyone, except for one person, in the midst of our congregation that tested positive,” he said.
“That’s the purpose and reason why we shut down our facility — just to safeguard everybody and make sure that everybody would stay home if they happened to be feeling a little bit under the weather,” he said.
The video of the service had been posted on the church’s website, as are their other Sunday services, but as of June 24, the video had been “removed by the uploader.” The Methow Valley News transcribed Rushlow’s talk before the video was taken down from the web.
Halting in-person gatherings is an important means of controlling the virus, making it a temporary spread of disease, as opposed to ongoing illness in the community, Wallace said.
Public Health recommends a COVID test for anyone with a possible exposure or symptoms such as fever, cough, diarrhea, chills, loss of taste or sense of smell, or body aches. Tests are free and available from several health care providers in the valley (see box).
“Breakthrough” infections — where someone who’s been vaccinated gets COVID — are very rare, Jones said. There have been 12 breakthrough infections among almost 20,000 vaccinated people in the county since December, according to Public Health.
“The vaccine keeps us from having this conversation in the first place. We’re seeing 95% or better immunity,” Wallace said. “Then you don’t have to worry about closures, isolation and quarantine.”
“The bottom line is, either you’re going to get vaccinated, or you’re going to get COVID,” Jones said.
Full reopening: most state restrictions lifted
Most businesses, cultural events and recreation are fully reopening this week (Wednesday, June 30) for the first time in a year and a half. Full reopening means there are no restrictions on types of activity, capacity or occupancy. The only exceptions are large indoor events like sports, concerts and conventions with more than 10,000 people.
“People who are vaccinated can go along with their regular lives, for the most part,” according to the state Department of Health (DOH).
Unvaccinated people still need to wear masks indoors, and businesses have the option of setting stricter regulations, such as requiring masks for all workers or customers.
Masks are required for everyone in higher-risk settings such as medical offices and hospitals, long-term-care facilities, and places where many people are not yet able to be vaccinated, like child care, day camps and K-12 schools.
Most special rules for restaurants and bars, movie theaters, houses of worship and other entities will expire, DOH said. DOH will continue to provide guidance about ventilation and overall safe practices for disease prevention.
• Aero Methow Rescue Service is giving free COVID tests for people with COVID symptoms on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 4-6 p.m. and Sundays from noon-2 p.m. No appointment is necessary. People should pull into the parking lot behind Aero Methow. For more information, call 997-4013.
• Confluence Health COVID-19 Hotline: (509) 663-8711.
• Family Health Centers, Twisp: 997-2011.