The North Olympic Peninsula has now had its first confirmed case of COVID-19 and health officials in Jefferson and Clallam counties are investigating if the Jefferson County man sickened with the virus has exposed others.
No others cases had been confirmed in either county as of Saturday.
The Jefferson County man, who is in his 60s, contracted COVID-19 during a recent trip to visit a family member in Kirkland, where community-level transmission is occurring, health officials said Friday. The patient was treated at a Seattle-area hospital, which was unidentified, and now is recovering in his Jefferson County home, they said.
Both Dr. Tom Locke, Jefferson County health officer, and Dr. Allison Berry Unthank, Clallam County health officer, said the man had spent time in Jefferson and Clallam counties during early infectious stages of his illness.
Locke said Friday there is no evidence of community-level transmission of COVID-19 on the Peninsula.
“We have a clear link to Kirkland, so this Jefferson County resident was exposed to an ill person in King County,” he said.
Locke said he was unsure where the man lives in Jefferson County or if anyone lives with him.
Health officials in both counties are investigating the man’s contacts over the past 14 days.
Locke said that the Jefferson County Public Health Department did not now have firm numbers on how many people are being notified, nor how many may need to be tested.
“We have not found any public exposures with this person,” Unthank told about 40 first responders, health care workers and other Clallam County officials during a Friday briefing at the county emergency operations center (EOC) in Port Angeles that opened last week to aid in coordinating response.
“We are continuing to trace individual contacts, and they will be contacted by our office.”
Eleven Clallam County patients had been tested for COVID-19 as of Saturday, she said. Three of those tests were negative and eight were pending, Unthank said in a telephone interview.
“We do suspect that there is transmission of this virus in low levels locally that we aren’t able to pick up because of the shortage of testing ability,” Unthank said.
“We do not see any evidence of asymptomatic spread of this virus,” she said in her second emergency briefing Friday.
As of Saturday, 16 people in Washington state had died of the virus. Confirmed cases number 102, according to The Seattle Times.
Most of those who catch the virus have mild common cold-like symptoms or may have no signs of illness at all, health officials said.
About 20 percent of those who contract COVID-19 have more severe influenza-like illness with fever, cough and shortness of breath. Of those, some will develop severe illness requiring hospitalization. Elderly people with chronic illnesses are most at risk.
A logistics chain has been established at the EOC to provide personal protective equipment to health care providers and first responders who come into contact with ill patients.
“We’re continuing with that long-range planning, which is going to be very important and vital as time goes on,” said Ron Cameron, Clallam County undersheriff and emergency management director.
Masks are not recommended for the general public.
“We really just recommend planning, not panicking,” Unthank said.
“If you have a worker who you’re worried about who’s sick, I recommend send them home, and clean off the area that they’ve been in.
“Other than that, you don’t need to close a workplace because someone was sneezing or coughing there,” Unthank added, “and certainly not because someone who is asymptomatic knows someone in Kirkland.”
Testing capacity for coronavirus remained “quite limited” as of Friday, Unthank said.
“The state has received testing kits,” Unthank said.
“There’s a lot more than kits that goes into testing. You need someone who can swab that patient. You need someone to bring that test to a central location where it can get properly packaged in a safe way so it won’t endanger people, and then you need to ship it to the University of Washington, and then they need people to staff it and run those tests.
“We do not have enough of any of those things,” Unthank added.
“So if you’re hearing that ‘We have a whole pile of test kits, why aren’t we testing?’ The problem is people. We don’t have the people to run the tests.”
Locke said that the situation is rapidly improving.
“Probably by next week they’ll be caught up, so anyone we want to test, we can send a sample to Seattle and we can get the results and hopefully in 24 to 48 hours,” he said Friday.
Clallam County public health was testing only hospitalized patients with severe infections of an otherwise unknown origin.
“We’re not (testing) at nursing facilities, but we hope to get there by next week,” Unthank said Friday.
Meanwhile, Clallam County heath officials were looking for private laboratories to send samples to be tested for COVID-19.
“Basically the fastest person wins,” Unthank said. “They’re all running the same kind of test, so they’re all equally accurate.”
The Clallam County samples were being collected at Olympic Medical Center in Port Angeles, Unthank said.
Forks Community Hospital had no patients that required testing, Unthank said.
Health officials said they were not recommending that events be canceled or that schools be closed.
“The reason that we’re not canceling public events like King County is is because they have much, much, much more virus than we do,” Unthank said.
“There certainly could become a point in the future where we would recommend that. But right now, we’re not there.”
A Jefferson Healthcare nurse consult line is available from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays at 360-344-3094.
A Clallam County COVID-19 hotline is available at 360-417-2430.
“Our hope is that if we do this well enough, we won’t have to experience something as bad as what King County has,” Unthank said.
Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56450, or at [email protected].
Jefferson County Reporter Ken Parks contributed to this story.