PORT TOWNSEND — Jefferson County Commissioners voted to extend the county’s COVID-19 emergency declaration first issued in March 2020, citing the need for continued flexibility in response to ongoing coronavirus transmission.
Commissioners Greg Brotherton, Kate Dean and Heidi Eisenhour voted unanimously to extend the emergency, which allows county officials to bypass certain requirements — such as length of time to provide public notice for meetings — allowing quicker reaction to emergency situations.
The language of the declaration was trimmed down and mostly impacts county employees, said Chief Civil Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Philip Hunsucker, who drafted the revisions.
“We tried to keep policies that are still helpful specifically directed at COVID and take out the ones that we didn’t think applied anymore,” Hunsucker said.
Policies implemented in response to the pandemic that proved to be useful, such as allowing increased remote work, will be included in the county employee manual, Hunsucker said. County staff have begun the process of updating the manual, Hunsucker said, but the declaration will keep that flexibility in place until the new policies are officially put in place.
“I’m supportive of it as it’s drafted because it’s got a limited scope and it gets at the tools that our team needs,” Eisenhour said of the revised document.
The declaration notes this is the 13th time commissioners have adopted a temporary county policy based on the COVID-19 emergency.
Public comment was split on the matter, with two commenters supporting the extension and two opposed.
Speaking against the extension, a man identified as Steven cast doubt on the efficacy of mitigation policies like masking and said the ongoing extension of emergency orders undermines public trust.
“It does make things more flexible from a public health point of view,” he said. “But from the point of view of businesses and individuals trying to live their lives, it creates unpredictability.”
Another commenter, Tom Thiersch, said he was strongly in favor of the commissioners extending the emergency.
“We’re going to get hit with a double or triple whammy this winter,” Thiersch said. “We need to be able to react very quickly to the known COVID variants and the ones that could pop up.”
Commissioners had signaled in previous meetings they intended to keep the mitigation policies in place as the number of COVID-19 infections is expected to rise during the colder months.
In a previous meeting, commissioners noted that extending the emergency declaration allows the county to continue to access emergency funding from the federal government and maintain workplace policies for county employees, Peninsula Daily News previously reported.
In September, Gov. Jay Inslee announced that remaining COVID-19 emergency orders and the state of emergency will end Oct. 31, even as coronavirus remains present in the state.
U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra announced Oct. 13 that the national public health emergency declaration would last until Jan. 13.
Earlier in the morning, commissioners heard a presentation from Jefferson County Deputy Health Officer Dr. Tom Locke, who said the number of cases was again rising in Europe and Asia and the same could be expected in the U.S. Locke said coronavirus variants continue to mutate into newer strains more resistant to previous inoculations.
The two-week case rate in the county is high, according to Jefferson County Public Health, with roughly 240 cases per 100,000 people. Two people are currently hospitalized with COVID, Locke said.
Free COVID-19 vaccines and boosters are widely available at most pharmacies and medical providers. The federal government is still covering the cost of COVID-19 vaccines to ensure they are free to the public, but the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has previously said that funding could run out by January 2023.
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