For the first time since the initial COVID-19 case was diagnosed on the North Olympic Peninsula on March 6, no additional cases were discovered in Clallam or Jefferson counties this weekend.
Health officers from both counties started to look ahead Monday to future testing conditions and which parts of the economy might be targeted to reopen first following the expiration of Gov. Jay Inslee’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order May 4.
Testing kits are becoming more available for the health agencies to increase testing for respiratory patients, and Dr. Tom Locke, the Jefferson County health officer, predicts the county will soon have enough to test all patients with respiratory illnesses.
It should be easier to sort through potential cases, since the influenza season has abruptly ended, he said.
“Our testing protocols up to this point have been defined by scarcity; scarcity of lab resources, scarcity even of the specimen collection kits,” Locke said. “But those things are finally beginning to be fixed.”
Locke said the state received 1 million testing swabs on Monday, and the state labs have built up their capacity.
“We think this week we will be able to finally do what we wanted to do all along, and that is very intensive testing,” he said. “Essentially test anyone with any kind of respiratory or COVID-like illness like fever or cough.”
Clallam County Health Officer Dr. Allison Unthank agreed Monday, saying the county is expanding its criteria for testing. Any essential worker with even mild symptoms — fever, cough, shortness of breath — can now get tested, she said.
Those people are also urged to stay at home and not go out to work even with mild symptoms, she said.
“I do believe we have passed our peak in Clallam County,” Unthank said. “The trick is we have to get down the side a little further before social distancing can be relaxed.”
“Our last case was the end of last week,” she continued. “If we keep doing what we’re doing, and we keep physical distancing, we should be in a good spot by May 4.”
Unthank said health officials would like to see a “persistent” decrease in COVID-19 cases for at least two weeks before easing work restrictions.
Despite the downtrend in cases this past week, she said there’s no reason to believe Inslee’s order will be lifted early.
“We are actually doing quite well,” Unthank said. “We know people are getting tired, but don’t plan on anything before May 4.”
“If everybody starts relaxing early and spending time in close quarters, we’ll see a rebound,” she said.
Neither county has so far seen a medical surge in cases that was initially predicted when the first cases began to be reported in the state, as social distancing and community mitigation methods have appeared to have been so far successful in limiting the spread of the virus, Locke told the Board of Jefferson County Commissioners on Monday in Port Townsend.
“Neither of us are really experiencing a medical surge,” Locke said. “We hope it stays that way, but we have no guarantees.”
Jefferson County has had 28 confirmed cases, with no new cases reported for the last 11 days, while Clallam County has 14 confirmed cases, the most recent two reported last Wednesday and believed to be an out-of-county transmission, officials said.
Jefferson County has a conducted more than 700 tests and has a positive infection rate of 4 percent, according to Jefferson County Public Health. There have been 881 tests conducted in Clallam County.
“This is only the first wave,” Locke cautioned. “Here in Washington state, we’re in the process of dealing with the first wave, but we think there is going to be other waves, and the overall imperatives of this is to try and control those as best we can.”
“The good news in this is we know that physical distancing works. It’s an extreme measure, it comes with enormous economic cost, but it does slow the progression of infection through the population.”
However, if restrictions are lifted too soon, the number of cases could potentially return to spreading rapidly and reverse the work that has been done so far, Locke said.
“In kind of the bad news with this, is the gains — especially in King County and Snohomish — are precarious,” Locke said. “If, for instance, they were to stop community-mitigation efforts, they would start to be right back into exponential growth in one to two weeks.
“The projections are that their surge at this point it, if it resumed, would be three to five times worse than the surge that they’re having now.”
To start to reopen the economy, both health officers said more testing is needed, and Locke also wants to increase outbreak investigations, so if a case is confirmed, they can test everyone who has been in contact with the positive case to prevent further spread.
“When we get the positive test, we have to react very fast, very aggressively to investigate cases, identify contacts, get people appropriately isolated or quarantined,” Locke said. “Actually do all this within 24 hours of learning of the case, and then do a bunch of things to monitor and support people during their isolation and quarantine.”
Unthank said changes she expects to see next month include companies needing to make sure employees have sick leave so they don’t come to work sick.
Some businesses that have workers close together may want to make some changes to create more physical distance between employees in the workplace, she added.
Unthank expects people who work outdoors in building trade and others who can easily maintain 6 feet of distance from others while on the job will likely be allowed first into the workplace, but that will depend on Inslee’s order.
Locke expected outdoor construction and recreational activities that pose the least amount of potential for infection to also be on the list.