From right to left, Gov. Jay Inslee, Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler, Director of the Department of Labor & Industries Joel Sacks and Health Secretary John Wiesman meet with the media to discuss the latest update on coronavirus in the state Thursday, March 5, 2020, in Olympia. (Rachel La Corte/The Associated Press)

From right to left, Gov. Jay Inslee, Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler, Director of the Department of Labor & Industries Joel Sacks and Health Secretary John Wiesman meet with the media to discuss the latest update on coronavirus in the state Thursday, March 5, 2020, in Olympia. (Rachel La Corte/The Associated Press)

Coronavirus kills 11 in Washington; school district closes

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By Martha Bellisle and Rachel La Corte

The Associated Press

OLYMPIA — A school district north of Seattle with 22,000 students will close for up to two weeks because of coronavirus concerns, and state officials issued an order to waive fees for virus testing as the number of deaths in the state rose to 11.

Authorities said Thursday there are at least 70 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state, a number that includes those who have died of the disease. That number is up from 39 on Wednesday.

Also on King County officials confirmed the 11th death, a woman in her 90s.

One case has been reported in rural Grant County in central Washington. Maria Vargas from the Grant County Health District said a Quincy resident in his or her 80s was infected, but it was unclear how the person was exposed. The rest of the cases are in the Seattle area.

Of the 11 deaths, nine were residents of a Kirkland nursing home, Life Care. Families of people at Life Care say they are angry about conflicting information about what’s happening with their loved ones. The families held a news conference Thursday in front of the center.

Kevin Connolly, a spokesman for the group, said one woman was told her mother had died, but later received a call from another staff member saying the mother was doing well, which caused the daughter distress because the mother had, in fact, died.

“This is the level of incompetence we’re dealing with,” Connolly said.

The federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has sent inspectors to Life Care along with experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to figure out how the coronavirus outbreak happened there and to determine whether the nursing home followed guidelines for preventing infections.

Vice President Mike Pence planned to meet late Thursday with Gov. Jay Inslee and other state officials about the response to the virus during a visit to the state.

Washington’s insurance commissioner has issued an order requiring all state-regulated health insurers in the state to not charge copays or deductibles for people who require testing or medical visits for the coronavirus. Commissioner Mike Kreidler made the announcement at a Thursday news conference.

The insurance commissioner’s office said 1.2 million people are covered by state-regulated plans. The order doesn’t apply to Medicare, Medicaid or self-funded employer plans.

Inslee also announced that the state will cover the costs of tests for those who are uninsured, but whose doctors believe they need testing. Authorities also say people who have to see an out-of-network provider would have that visit covered as if it was within their insurance plan. The order is effective until May 4.

Many businesses in the region told workers to telecommute. That included Microsoft and Amazon, tech giants who employ more than 100,000 people in the Puget Sound region.

All of the schools in the Northshore School District will be closed for up to two weeks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and protect vulnerable staff members, the district’s superintendent said Wednesday evening in a letter to parents. They plan to teach students online.

Northshore School District superintendent Michelle Reid said all of the 26 schools in the district will be shuttered while officials monitor the situation and listen to the health department for more recommendations.

Reid said she made the decision after learning of more people in the region testing positive, including a parent volunteer at Woodmoore Elementary School who tested positive for COVID-19.

Inslee said Thursday that he is deferring the decision to close schools across the state to school administrators, but that could change at any time.

“For those who have wondered why I have not made that decision today it is because we are still evaluating the efficacy of that,” he said. “We’re also weighing this against the needs for childcare. It is profoundly a challenge for families already.”

Inslee encouraged schools to explore the possibility of online teaching methods while they weigh the risks of sending children to their schools.

Seattle area schools were mulling teaching students online in the event of prolonged closures over health concerns. The schools took the steps after researchers said the virus that causes the disease called COVID-19 may have been circulating for weeks undetected in the state.

Some students and parents started petitions asking districts to close their campuses.

Ken Finlayson said his 14-year-old son started a petition asking the Lake Washington School District to close their schools, which are located in Kirkland and near the nursing home that’s been the epicenter of the outbreak. By early Thursday, more than 18,500 people had signed the petition.

State and regional health officials have not recommended closing schools. They say children are unlikely to get very sick if they get COVID-19.

But Finlayson said the children may bring the virus home to people who are vulnerable, including infants, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems.

“My wife is severely disabled — she’s a non-verbal quadriplegic,” he said. “He may bring the virus home to his mother, who may die.”

Finlayson said if school officials want to ensure all students have equal access to learning, they could open a few labs or classrooms for those students, while holding online classes.

More than 20 schools in the Puget Sound area have closed for at least a day for cleaning prompted by coronavirus concerns, according to the Washington superintendent of public instruction.

Seattle Public Schools has so far said the district would not close, but it was monitoring the situation.

There was good news Thursday for some firefighters exposed to the virus at a nursing home in suburban Seattle. All tests for the virus have come back negative so far for the firefighters who’ve been in quarantine for possible exposure at the Life Care nursing home in Kirkland.

Evan Hurley, a Kirkland firefighter and union representative, said nine firefighters and seven of their family members were tested Tuesday. All those test results came back negative. Nine more firefighters were scheduled for testing Thursday.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, right, bumps elbows with a worker at the seafood counter of the Uwajimaya Asian Food and Gift Market on Tuesday, March 3, 2020, in Seattle’s International District. Inslee said he’s doing the elbow bump with people instead of shaking hands to prevent the spread of germs, and that his visit to the store was to encourage people to keep patronizing businesses during the COVID-19 Coronavirus outbreak. (Ted S. Warren/The Associated Press)

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, right, bumps elbows with a worker at the seafood counter of the Uwajimaya Asian Food and Gift Market on Tuesday, March 3, 2020, in Seattle’s International District. Inslee said he’s doing the elbow bump with people instead of shaking hands to prevent the spread of germs, and that his visit to the store was to encourage people to keep patronizing businesses during the COVID-19 Coronavirus outbreak. (Ted S. Warren/The Associated Press)

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