PORT TOWNSEND — Dr. Joe Mattern has made a lot of difficult phone calls since last spring. He’s spoken frankly with dozens of men and women — of various ages — who caught COVID-19 from their husbands, wives, co-workers and neighbors in Jefferson County.
These conversations “provide me with insight,” said Mattern, about how the illness spreads across households, families, parties and friendly visits.
Mattern is chief medical officer at Jefferson Healthcare hospital, at 25 beds the only hospital in this county.
After the coronavirus pandemic arrived on the North Olympic Peninsula in March, he and his staff watched local cases tick up slowly.
With CEO Mike Glenn and the rest of the incident-command team, Mattern prepared the hospital for a surge in seriously ill patients: an influx that could necessitate addition of another 25 to 50 beds, with the specialized intensive-care staff to go with them.
That surge hasn’t come yet. In late spring in Jefferson County, COVID cases were relatively low under Gov. Jay Inslee’s “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order. Across the Olympic Peninsula and around the country, many people speculated this was all a hoax.
Then Mattern’s father died of COVID in May. Since then, neighboring Clallam County has seen two COVID deaths. On Friday, the state death toll reached 2,723.
“It’s real to me,” Mattern said.
He didn’t take time off to mourn his father. Instead, he watched his home county undergo a dramatic change: Early last month, Jefferson’s cases were at 71; by Halloween they had crept up to 88. This past Friday, the county surpassed 140 people who’ve been infected with COVID. Clallam County reached 413 on Saturday. Kitsap County 2,101 cases with 29 people dead. There have been no deaths thus far in Jefferson County.
But “now is the worst it’s been,” said Mike Glenn, CEO of Jefferson Healthcare.
“Community prevalence is so much higher,” presenting an increased countywide risk.
“Now is the time we need to double down on masking, social distancing, washing our hands,” and most of all, Glenn said, “stay inside your bubble.”
He and Mattern hear it from people sick with COVID: “Time and time again,” Glenn said, “it’s related to visiting neighbors, a trip across the water … an extended family member,” or a friend who came over without a mask.
Yet Mattern’s hope and intention, amid all of it, is that the virus can be stopped. He envisions a day when people can return to get-togethers with neighbors, visits to and from family in other states — and big Thanksgiving feasts.
Mattern likes to bake pies for this holiday, and this year, he’s fixing to bring them to friends’ homes, leave them on the doorstep and “ring the bell and run.” Saying this, he smiled a little.
“People are missing the connection. They’re missing family,” he acknowledged.
But “if the holidays are about celebrating family, this year we have to celebrate by keeping apart.”
At Mattern’s own workplace, Jefferson Healthcare hospital, there have been three staffers who tested positive for the coronavirus. Two were cases of community transmission; the other was possibly workplace-related.
“That sets off an explosion of activity,” said Glenn. Contact tracing is done inside and outside the facility, from the break room to the household and everywhere in between.
In health care facilities elsewhere in the country, employees spread the virus at after-work get-togethers, he added. An infected person can have no symptoms whatsoever — while exposing family and friends to COVID.
At the same time, Mattern, Glenn and their colleagues know how fatigued people are, among the hospital staff and everywhere.
“People feel like ‘I’m with my family,’ or ‘this is my neighbor,’ and they want to let their guard down because they are tired,” said Mattern. This, sadly, is why cases are rising.
“Hospitalizations will follow,” he said.
If Jefferson Healthcare hospital has more staff members sickened with COVID, that means the facility will be short-handed, and the people still working will grow more fatigued.
“We need a rested workforce to take care of our community,” said Glenn. Now is the time, he said, “to double down” on making no exceptions to safety precautions.
Then Mattern offered a hopeful vision, especially in light of the vaccines being developed now.
This Thanksgiving, he said, could be “the beginning of the end,” the last push through the marathon.
“You’ve made it this far,” he said: masking, distancing, hand-washing and forgoing travel, parties, family get-togethers.
The hospital has a contract with the community, Mattern added, and it keeps us all healthy as local residents do their part.
“You’ve trained this hard,” he said.
“Wouldn’t it be great to get across the finish line?”
Diane Urbani de la Paz, senior reporter in Jefferson County, can be reached at 360-417-3509 or [email protected].