PORT TOWNSEND — Jefferson County commissioners have drafted a 13th temporary COVID-19 response policy that would extend the emergency at least through the end of the year.
The state is ending its emergency declaration on Oct. 31.
The federal heath emergency is in place through Jan. 31, according to an order by Xavier Becerra, Secretary of Health and Human Services, that was effective last Thursday.
The policy will be reviewed by the Jefferson County COVID Coordination Committee at its Friday meeting, and commissioners are expected to consider approval at their Monday meeting next week.
The policy has been continuously updated throughout the COVID-19 pandemic to reflect and respond to changes in the pandemic at the national and state levels, officials have said.
Jefferson County commissioners indicated they are overall in favor of maintaining the emergency orders through at least the remainder of the year for the following reasons.
• Health expects expect increases in COVID-19 cases through the fall and winter due to more people gathering inside and lack of masking when in indoor spaces.
• Maintaining the orders provides the county the ability to maintain access to emergency funds for testing via the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
• The action also allows the county to maintain compliance with the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) by holding hybrid public meetings and ability to maintain personnel policies such as workplace requirements for county employees with regard to masking and paid sick leave.
“In our conversations last week, we (commissioners) acknowledged that there may be an uptick in the fall of COVID-19 cases and we may want some of the precautions in place based on the emergency order that we have now,” Commissioner Kate Dean said.
Jefferson County Attorney Philip Hunsucker presented on Monday a draft of the new policy and explained via RCW 38.50.070 (2) the powers the county has to maintain the emergency orders.
“Mainly what I did was take out whereas clauses that are not applicable to the current situation anymore and then I added where there was a discussion of the emergency orders from the governor that he was going to end most of the emergency orders on Oct. 31,” Hunsucker said.
Hunsucker and the commissioners worked on finessing some language to make the policy more compatible with the shift to the endemic stage of COVID-19.
Commissioner Heidi Eisenhour asked if keeping the policies would be redundant due to similar policies and protections being in place via other orders.
Sarah Melancon, county Human Resources manager, said that Labor and Industries (L&I) has similar policies in place and even adopted additional policies due to the pandemic, but those policies likely will end when the state emergency order lifts Oct. 31.
”There are requirements under L&I that require an employer to maintain a working environment that is safe from hazards for all employees. So we are bound to those guidelines whether or not our emergency policy is in place,” Melancon said.
Jefferson County has considered creating a permanent policy from some of the measures the county has adopted during the pandemic and argues that keeping the emergency order in place will give county staff more time to review and draft that policy.
“The proposal is not to really change anything about the policy. We actually had a discussion about how to integrate a bunch of this stuff in as permanent parts of our policy,” Hunsucker said.
“That may be one of the reasons why you might want to consider keeping the emergency order in place. It gives HR time to do the drafting.”
This discussion was part of a public hearing in which only one person, identified only as Steven, made a comment.
“I think it is disingenuous to try and apply emergency things for something that is just a ‘case demic’ at this point,” he said.
“It’s not lots of deaths, not the hospitals being overburdened. I’m concerned that we are in a walking-on-eggshells mode and almost feel it would be better to step back and treat COVID-19 as not an emergency but a cause for concern.”
Reporter Ken Park can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.