The North Olympic Peninsula has gone a full week with no new COVID-19 cases, allowing health officials to prepare for expanded testing and contact tracing.
Public health officers in Clallam and Jefferson counties emphasized Wednesday a need for continued physical distancing, hand washing and other infection control measures to keep the highly contagious virus in check.
“I think that it’s looking more and more like we have escaped the first surge of this here on the Olympic Peninsula,” said Dr. Tom Locke, Jefferson County health officer.
“We still may see a surge in hospital cases in the weeks or months ahead, but it’s looking less likely at this point that what happened in Seattle is going to happen here.
“But it’s still an ever-present risk,” Locke added.
“So I applaud people for doing a really good job at social distancing and preventing transmission of this infection — and I realize how difficult it is to do it — but we have to keep that up.”
Clallam County’s number of confirmed COVID-19 cases remained at 14 Wednesday for a seventh consecutive day, said Dr. Allison Unthank, county health officer.
“We’ve gone a week without any new cases locally, which is a great step in the right direction,” Unthank said during a COVID-19 briefing at the county courthouse.
Jefferson County’s confirmed COVID-19 cases remained at 28 Wednesday. There have been no new cases in the county since April 9, Locke said.
“We’re using this breather, this lull in the storm, to really get ready for the next phase of this, which is a major expansion of the testing,” Locke said in a Wednesday interview.
A lack of testing capacity saddled health care workers in the early stages of the outbreak. Testing is now available for sick patients in health care settings.
Unthank said testing would soon be made available to anyone showing the respiratory and feverish symptoms of COVID-19.
“We’re not quite there yet,” Unthank said.
“The state has ordered a large number of testing kits, but they’ve not yet arrived.”
Eventually, testing will be expanded to anyone who has close contact with a COVID-19 patient. The goal is to monitor and support those who are in isolation or quarantine.
“If we have a system that can rapidly detect and contain infection, then we can stop it from spinning out of control,” Locke said.
“But if we don’t have a system, if we can’t put out those fires before they start linking together and setting the whole forest on fire again, then we’ll be back to these kind of shutdowns that provide such a hardship to people and their livelihoods and their lifestyles.”
Gov. Jay Inslee issued a stay-at-home order for non-essential travel through May 4. Portions of the order are expected to be extended.
New models from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation show the state “could safely back off” on physical distancing measures by the third or fourth week of May, Locke said.
“The bottom line is, especially for King County and Snohomish County, May 5 would be too early to back off,” Locke said.
“It would cause the second wave to be much worse than the first wave.”
Jefferson County had trained nine case investigators for COVID-19 contact tracing, Locke has said previously.
Clallam County health officials plan to double a 20-member team of contact tracers and to recruit another 10 volunteers to assist those who are in isolation or quarantine with things like groceries and medications, Unthank said Wednesday.
“The plan is for that group to be on-call for us in the year to come,” Unthank said.
“We anticipate we’re going to be dealing with COVID-19 in some way or another until we really get a good vaccine available and enough of our population vaccinated.”
Clallam County had tested 957 for COVID-19 as of Wednesday. Of those, 907 tests were negative, 14 were positive and 36 were pending.
Jefferson County had tested 747 for the new coronavirus as of Wednesday. Of those, 710 were negative, 28 were positive and nine were pending.
Thirty-four of the 42 North Olympic Peninsula residents that contracted COVID-19 have recovered.
There have been no reported COVID-19-related deaths in Clallam or Jefferson counties.
“If we want to keep the levels low on the Olympic Peninsula, we have to keep doing what we’re doing now for the near future,” Locke said.
Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at [email protected].