Clallam board of health hears good news: Potential return of students, teachers

More teachers and students may be coming back to classrooms thanks to low COVID-19 rate

Progress in containing virus transmission and the potential return of more Clallam County students and teachers to classrooms were the highlights of an update presented to the Clallam County Board of Health by County Health Officer Dr. Allison Unthank.

“We are doing relatively well in recent weeks,” Unthank said during the virtual board meeting on Tuesday.

“Our rate (of COVID-19 infection) per 100,000 population over the last 14 days is 18 [cases]. And we’ve been under the (high-risk metric) of 75 cases per 100,000 cutoff for 15 days. That does mean our long-term care facilities can do Phase 2 meetings between those who are residents and visitors, if they so choose.”

Unthank also said she would recommend children return to school before Clallam County applies to reach Phase 3 of the state’s currently paused, four-phase reopening plan.

“I think we should consider opening schools before we reopen other things, which I know may not be a popular decision,” Unthank said.

“Currently, moving to Phase 3 is paused at the state level, but there is talk of that being unpaused and restarted in the near future. From my perspective, while I do want to see more things open, I want to see kids in school the most.”

The move doesn’t come without risk of increased infections.

“The challenge we are learning with COVID-19 safety, it is a zero-sum game. There are only so many connections you can have in your life and keep numbers low. Bringing kids into school is bringing a dramatic increase in the number of connections in the community. And so I would not recommend moving to Phase 3 and bringing in kids at the same time. I think we should bring in schools and start some in-person learning and then start further reopening from there.”

Unthank said she has been asked about priorities by parents and citizens.

“I have heard frustration from parents and citizens, ‘Why are we talking so much about how to open bars and not focusing just on how to get the kids in school?’

“I think it’s a fair question to prioritize children and their education and getting kids in school for working parents before additional re-openings.”

Continued containment is needed to get more kids in class, she said.

“We still have a little wait to get to the four-week cutoff for schools, but so far we are in good stead for that,” Unthank said. “Most of our schools are planning on opening some degree of in-person learning on Oct. 5.”

Unthank said districts are expected to slowly bring younger students back to classrooms.

“In some districts, much of the elementary school can come back, in others it’s just a grade or two. I know Sequim it’s a grade or two that would be coming back and in Port Angeles kindergarten and first grade. The youngest learners would go first.”

Avoiding further instability for students is key.

“So start with a small number, make sure it is working, and then the plan from the school districts is every two weeks they would add additional grade levels as long as we are keeping our numbers low and protocols are working well,” Unthank said.

Unthank said COVID-19 cases over the last month have had “three very different drivers of infection in Clallam County.”

“The West End is a complex situation,” Unthank said. “We’ve struggled with some political pushback to COVID-19 that has played out in some cases and a lot of cases from folks who are really struggling with significant poverty, and that is limiting their ability to keep themselves safe.”

“PA cases are related to bar outbreak and parties. Sequim cases are rare, but when they do happen, they are mostly related to travel.”

Mark Ozias, board member and Clallam County commissioner, asked Unthank about priorities in deploying some of the second round of CARES Act funding toward public health purposes.

“Using more funds toward quarantine support specifically for the West End,” Unthank said.

“Making sure those who are in quarantine can get groceries and can get them at cheap funding. We have a lot of folks who if they don’t work that day they can’t eat that day. We need to make sure they can safely stay home from work and they can eat.

“Funding food, funding some degree of rent support as well. We’ve been seeing that’s been a big driver of people leaving quarantine is they can’t afford to pay their rent if they stay home.”

Unthank urged Clallam County residents to receive a flu shot.

“We do know from countries that have had COVID and flu seasons at the same time that it is quite dangerous. Co-infection with COVID and flu triples the mortality rate. The other major reason people should get a flu shot is every year we see our health care system strained by influenza alone.”