Clallam County received 600 new COVID-19 test kits Wednesday.
That opens the door to broader testing of potential coronavirus patients that could begin today for a virus expected to last on the North Olympic Peninsula at least through June — and which added a 10th case in Jefferson County.
Clallam County Health Officer Allison Berry Unthank, herself sick with a mild cold, said testing would be scaled up as soon as possible in cooperation with Olympic Medical Center and Forks Community Hospital.
“I’m going to be working with OMC, Forks hospital and our clinic to figure out how we want to operationalize that, but we should be able to start liberalizing some of the requirements soon based on that,” she said at the regular COVID-19 briefing Wednesday, during which she participated from her home via video.
“They need to set up the facilities to do the testing and things like that, so don’t run back to your doctor today requesting the test,” Unthank said.
“We should hopefully have that in place by [today].”
Unthank said she has not been tested for the virus.
She does not fit the county’s current requirements under which only hospitalized patients, health care workers and first responders are tested.
Unthank said she would probably not be back at work onsite until Monday. She said she will observe the 72-hour rule she has said ill people should employ: not returning to work until after three days of no symptoms, including no fever.
The test kits were received from a private vendor by Olympic Medical Center, which is coordinating the transfer of COVID-19 tests for processing and giving the results to county health officials.
At the briefing, which included U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer’s participation, Unthank said 250 residents have been swab-tested for the respiratory virus, which often includes a fever.
There have been 166 Clallam County tests that have come back negative, 80 are pending, and four tested positive within the last week, Unthank said.
A third case of in-county exposure to a Jefferson County resident was reported Wednesday, bringing to 10 the number of cases in the county, the health department reported. There have been seven out-of-county exposures.
As of Wednesday, Jefferson County has recorded 235 negative tests, with 191 tests pending and the 10 confirmed cases.
County Health Officer Tom Locke said he agreed with Unthank’s assessment on the duration of the virus on the Peninsula, saying it will last at least three months.
“The more successful we are in flattening the curve, the longer it will last,” he said.
“That’s the whole idea. If you spread it out, it’s more manageable.”
Locke felt optimistic that 95 percent of Jefferson County cases are coming back negative.
“The trouble with this pandemic is that it circulates in the community for several weeks before you even know about it,” he added.
“Many cases have very mild symptoms. They don’t even know they’re infected.”
While Clallam County has seen a few-days lull in positive tests, the virus, often accompanied by a fever and tightness in the chest, has hinted at having a growing presence on the North Olympic Peninsula.
“Even though we haven’t seen any more positive tests, we have seen a spike in COVID-like illnesses in our emergency department, people with shortness of breath and new oxygen requirements, things like that, without any known explanation, so we do really think COVID-19 is here,” Unthank said.
Serious about COVID-19
“What we are really trying to tell folks is, now is the time to be serious about COVID-19,” she said, urging residents to follow Gov. Jay Inslee’s two-week stay-at-home order being applied to non-essential occupations.
The list of essential occupations exempt from the order is at online.
“I do agree with that order, which is to stay home as much as possible, really only leaving your home and being around people only for essential needs, for things like going to the grocery story or the pharmacy,” Unthank said.
“We don’t recommend any social gatherings at this point, and we also recommend working from home as much as you are able.”
Unthank also urged people to practice social distancing of 6 feet or more from others if they do go out in public, including at grocery stores.
Asked when the virus would peak in Clallam County, Unthank said she expects it will last at least three months, up from an earlier estimate of about two months.
She said the duration depends in large part on how successful residents are in practicing social distancing, which New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Wednesday credited with slowing down the pace of COVID-19 hospitalizations in that state.
“We can flatten the curve if we follow all these recommendations,” Unthank said.
“Exactly how long it will last will depend on how well we follow recommendations on social distancing.
“Stay at home as much as possible, be around people for essential needs, we don’t recommend any social gatherings at this point, and working at home as much as you are able.”
Kilmer touted the benefits of a $2 trillion stimulus package that Senate Republicans and Democrats had reportedly agreed to as of Wednesday afternoon but had yet to vote on, and which also requires House approval.
It includes $1,200 for individuals earning up to $75,000 annually and $2,400 for married couples earning up to $150,000.
It also includes $250 billion for extended unemployment insurance, and adds flexibility to the disbursement of unemployment checks so laid-off workers — 335 were laid off this week at Port Angeles-based Wesport LLC — don’t have to wait weeks “to get the money they need,” Kilmer said.
It also expands access to unemployment insurance to part-time and contract workers, he said.
And, Kilmer said, it includes grants and $350 billion for loans for small businesses, many of which have been hit hard by sharp restrictions on restaurant services imposed by Inslee that still allow eateries to offer take-out services and DoorDash delivery, available in Port Angeles.
Kilmer is trying to expand access to testing “and make sure it’s free.”
Forks City Attorney-Planner Rod Fleck said at the briefing that food suppliers are telling food retailers that while their orders are being accepted, supply is being strained.
“Shipping may be reduced by percentages because of supply chain issues in the whole system,” Fleck said.
Another issue is a limit on commodities, he said.
“I’m hearing there are somewhat similar discussions with the school system on getting their supplies for lunch programs,” Fleck said.
One impact of the pandemic has been a steep decline in calls for service to law enforcement, Brian King, chief criminal deputy for the county sheriff’s office, said after the briefing, shortly before noon Wednesday.
“There’s been a significant downturn in reportable crimes, mostly property crimes, and actually, in general,” King said.
The drop covers both night and day shifts.
“I think people are home. I think to some degree people are just doing their best to abide by the [governor’s] orders.”
King said in a normal day shift, it would be rare to find a deputy sitting in the squad room.
“Right now, when I left, there were three deputies working on paperwork,” he said.
“That’s rare to see a squad room with there being more than one deputy in at any one time.”
Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at [email protected].