Officials: Limiting gatherings key in returning to in-person teaching

Peninsula COVID-19 cases rise by 3

Health officials doubled down on COVID-19 transmission prevention measures Wednesday as three new cases emerged on the North Olympic Peninsula.

Clallam County added two new cases for a total of 171 since the pandemic began in March, Health Officer Dr. Allison Unthank said Wednesday.

Jefferson County added one new case for a total of 62 cases, Health Officer Dr. Tom Locke said.

“It’s up to all the members of our community to make smart, safe decisions, and that means limiting gatherings, avoiding gatherings, keeping 6 feet between you and other people, washing your hands and wearing a mask,” Unthank told the Port Angeles City Council on Tuesday.

“If we do all of those things, and if all of our businesses follow the guidelines that we’ve set for them, we can keep cases low and we can get our kids back in school, but that is up to us to make that decision.”

Clallam County school districts are switching to beginning the 2020-21 academic year with remote learning after the county health department recommended it on Tuesday.

Jefferson County school districts have developed partial reopening plans tailored to individual communities, Locke said Tuesday.

“The big message in these final days of summer is that people need to keep their social groups small,” Locke said in a Wednesday interview.

Clallam and Jefferson counties are each in Phase 2 of Gov. Jay Inslee’s four-phase reopening open. Phase 2 allows for groups of up to five.

“What people need to seriously think about is any gathering above five people, not only is it breaking the law, but also there is real risk involved,” Locke said.

“The more we see the virus circulating in the community, the higher the risk is. So now’s the time to really pay attention to keeping gatherings small, strict adherence to the masking and distancing criteria and, as a friend said, the goal is that you’re not on anyone else’s contact list (for case investigations).”

Clallam County health officials were investigating an 11-case outbreak that occurred at Bourbon West, a Port Angeles bar, Unthank said.

Anyone who visited or worked at the bar between Aug. 9-13 is encouraged to get tested for the novel coronavirus.

Bar owner Jake Oppelt said Tuesday the outbreak occurred at a private party Aug. 7. Four Bourbon West employees who tested positive for COVID-19 had worn masks around their customers before the bar was closed Aug. 13, Oppelt said.

Clallam County is considered to be at high-risk for COVID-19 because it has had more than 75 cases per 100,000 population in two weeks.

“We’ve had 94 cases per 100,000 population in the last 14 days, so we really are seeing a significant surge of cases,” Unthank told the Port Angeles City Council.

Unthank attributed the surge to three key factors: private parties, the outbreak at Bourbon West and workers in low income professions who feel pressured to work when they are sick.

Unthank said the decision to recommend remote learning for Clallam County schools was “very difficult.”

“We really fought hard to keep our kids in school because we know how critical it is for kids to have access to in-person learning for quite a wide variety of reasons, given how much of a critical role schools play in child development,” Unthank told the City Council.

“But we feel at this point, with this amount of cases locally, that it’s just not safe to start with widespread, in-person learning.”

Unthank said she would recommend in-person learning with proper infection-control measures if the county’s two-week COVID-19 infection rate dips below 75 per 100,000 for four weeks.

“The reason why the four weeks is we want to have stability when we reopen classrooms,” Unthank said.

“We don’t want to change kids back and forth between learning models multiple times of the year.

“We know this is an incredible hardship for students and for parents and also for many teachers who really wanted to see their kids in person this year.”

Port Angeles School District Superintendent Martin Brewer reviewed for the City Council the district’s 2020-21 Academic Year Reopening and Response Plan.

The Port Angeles School District will begin the academic year in Stage 1 of its reopening plan called “distance learning 2.0.”

Stage 2 is a hybrid between in-person learning and remote learning. Stage 3 is a return to traditional brick-and-mortar schooling.

“Our plan really moves with the virus,” Brewer said while displaying a dial depicting the various stages of the plan.

“We created this dial so that we can turn the dial up and turn the dial down based on the infection rates in our county.”

Port Angeles City Council member Lindsey Schromen-Wawrin said the onus falls on community members to help lower the COVID-19 infection rate.

“When we’re sick and tired of the pandemic and we want to go party with our friends, that decision makes it more likely that kids stay out of school longer,” Schromen-Wawrin said.

Jefferson County also has seen an increase in COVID-19 exposures from social gatherings, Locke said. None of the county’s recent cases have been associated with tourists, he added.

“People get together in social gatherings, and they’re drinking and they’re letting down their guard, and they’re not wearing their masks, and they’re ignoring their (physical) distancing,” Locke said.

“You can get a really large outbreak in that situation. That’s really where the danger is. What people don’t realize is, in an outbreak, it’s not just their immediate contacts.

“They can set off this chain reaction that spreads through the community and ends up involving vulnerable populations, and this isn’t theoretical,” Locke added. “This is going on all over the state.”

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Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at rollikainen@peninsuladailynews.com.

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