PORT ANGELES — Health officials are issuing a bulletin to Clallam and Jefferson county doctors, informing them that they are now required to report if anyone is diagnosed with a mysterious vaping-related lung illness.
Interim Clallam County Health Officer Dr. Tom Locke, who also serves as the Jefferson County Health Officer, told the Board of Health on Tuesday that he was preparing to issue the bulletin, about a week after action by the state Board of Health.
“The more of these cases we can identify and investigate, the more likely we can figure out what’s going on,” Locke said Wednesday.
The condition has not been reported in Clallam or Jefferson county, Locke said.
Locke, who served as the Clallam County public health officer before moving to the Jefferson County post, is filling in now while Health Officer Dr. Allison Unthank is on maternity leave.
Locke said he will discuss vaping with the Jefferson County Board of Health at 2:30 p.m. today when it meets at the Jefferson County Public Health Building, 615 Sheridan St., Port Townsend.
Doctors must report to public health officials anyone who is hospitalized with an unexplainable lung disease and who has vaped within the past 90 days, Locke said.
The new state rules require retailers to put up notices about vaping products as well, Locke said.
Locke said that when the state Board of Health issued a 120-day ban on flavored vaping products last week, it was actually addressing two issues: the unknown cause of vaping-related illnesses and the “alarming” increase in vaping among youth.
There have been approximately 1,300 cases of the lung disease reported across the nation, and there have been 26 deaths across 21 states, Locke said.
There have been 12 cases reported in Washington state.
“Everyone has agreed at this point this is a real phenomenon,” Locke said. “It’s new and it’s linked with vaping, but exactly what’s going on, no one knows yet.”
Locke said the 120-day flavor ban is actually targeting the increase in vaping among youth.
He said between 2016 and 2018 vaping has increased among eighth-graders by 69 percent, it has increased among 10th-graders by 67 percent and it has increased 49 percent among 12th-graders.
“It’s possible the flavorings are related [to the illness], but not necessarily so,” Lock said. “That’s what’s really driving the youth use of this. Nicotine products that taste like freshly baked cookies or spearmint is really driving youth use. It’s really to try to get at this epidemic in the youth.”
Locke said that though nicotine and cannabis vaping products appear to both be contributing to the illness, cannabis products seem to be the largest contributor.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, products containing THC that were sold on the street or through other informal sources are linked to most of the cases reported. The CDC is recommending that people do not use any vaping products that contain THC and that people consider refraining from nicotine products.
Locke said the vaping wasn’t banned outright because that would have driven people who had quit smoking cigarettes back to using tobacco products.
“There’s no question that vaping is safer than tobacco,” Locke said. “One of the worst things is if we ban all vaping, that would encourage people to go back to tobacco and they would be worse off for it.”
Reporter Jesse Major can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56250, or at [email protected].