Health officers brace for possible rise in COVID-19 cases

Jefferson County to consider Phase 3

Public health officials expect a rise in COVID-19 cases on the North Olympic Peninsula as stores reopen, people step up traveling and protests of racial injustice draw participants.

Case spikes are predicted to be seen in the next week or two — particularly around the areas that have had large demonstrations such as King County — as protests have taken place in multiple parts of the Peninsula over the death of George Floyd and police brutality throughout the last week.

Both Dr. Tom Locke, Jefferson County health officer, and Dr. Allison Unthank, Clallam County health officer, support people’s right to free speech, but urge them to do so safely.

“From a purely medical prospective we recommend people do not gather in large groups,” said Unthank during her Friday morning briefing. “As far as how much risk that poses, it remains to be seen.

“Gathering in large groups does pose a risk of spreading COVID-19. That risk is lower when you’re outside; it is higher when you’re yelling. It is also higher when there are things like tear gas deployed that make people cough,” which has happened in other parts of the country although not on the Peninsula.

“We know that it is possible we may see a rise in infections as a result of the protests,” Unthank said.

Unthank recommends those who are sick to stay home, those who participate, wear masks, have hand-sanitizer and try to keep space between themselves and other demonstrators, she said.

“If people do that, that really does decrease the risk of COVID-19 in protests,” Unthank said. “We respect everyone’s right to protest, including the people who come out every week to protest me.

“We encourage people to express themselves, we just want them to do it as safely as possible.”

Locke agreed with Unthank regarding the protests and protesters needing to stay safe but still have a voice.

“As public health professionals we really want people to do both: speak their minds but do it as safely as possible,” said Locke.

As of Saturday, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases held at 27 cases in Clallam County and 31 cases in Jefferson County. Both counties have a less than 2 percent positive case rate, Locke and Unthank said.

Twenty-five of the cases in Clallam County have recovered and 30 cases in Jefferson County have recovered, they said.

Both counties opened Phase 2 businesses and activities this week except for overnight camping, which was originally planned to be reopened when the rest of the state did.

Locke said it’s possible some new cases may be reported this weekend for Jefferson County. He said there’s been an outbreak in a Kitsap County and that some people who work in Kitsap County but have listed residences in Jefferson County may end up testing positive for COVID-19. Nothing was certain on Saturday, but he hoped to have more information by today.

Unthank is planning to recommend overnight camping be reopened at the next Clallam County Board of Health meeting on June 16, now that King, Pierce and Snohomish counties have been approved to either enter Phase 2 fully or open overnight camping.

Jefferson County officials have said they will open overnight camping when Clallam County does.

Also, Locke is now preparing a recommendation for Jefferson County to begin the process of moving into Phase 3 of Gov. Jay Inslee’s “Safe Start” plan, and plans to have the recommendation ready for the county Board of Health for the next meeting on June 18.

The earliest Jefferson County could enter Phase 3 is this coming Saturday.

Locke believes that it will be better on the county economically to be in Phase 3.

“It’s very important for businesses for their sustainability,” Locke said. “We think that Phase 3 is a much more sustainable level to be at than Phase 2. People can have more customers and large group settings for gyms.

“I think we can likely move to Phase 3 this month, but it’s going to be very hard to move from Phase 3 to Phase 4 until the pandemic is in much better control.”

________

Jefferson County reporter Zach Jablonski can be reached by email at zjablonski@peninsuladailynews.com.

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