Dr. Unthank and Dr. Locke

Dr. Unthank and Dr. Locke

COVID-19 cases hold at 42 for the counties; flu cases have stopped

People tiring of physical distancing, urged to hang in there a little longer

There is some good news, some bad news for the North Olympic Peninsula on the COVID-19 front.

There were no new cases reported in Clallam or Jefferson counties on Friday or Saturday (April 17-18), and county and state health officials discussed in a conference call Saturday that the state may have hit its “first peak” in infections already.

That’s the good news. The bad news is there are some signs that people are tiring of the physical distancing. The public is being urged to hang in there a little longer. Gov. Jay Inslee’s “stay home, stay healthy” order is in effect until May 4 and health care officials expect it likely will be extended.

Tribal representatives and state health officer Dr. Kathy Lofy said during a a statewide conference call among county health officers that officials believe the first peak of infections has been hit, in particular along the Interstate 5 corridor, reported Dr. Tom Locke, Jefferson County health officer.

“People are getting tired of the restrictions,” Locke said, “but if we let up too soon, we could have another peak even worse than the first one.

“We’re seeing signs of an increase in traffic on the roads. People are understandably tired of the restrictions and isolation.”

Still, Locke said Jefferson County residents have been great so far in maintaining social distancing and wearing masks when going into stores. He said it’s become part of the “culture” for people to be mindful.

Undersheriff Ron Cameron of the Clallam County Sheriff’s Office, who is also the emergency management director, said that county law enforcement has seen a little increase in disturbances and daytime DUIs.

“Maybe some people are a little frustrated. It’s something we’re talking about and thinking about,” Cameron said. he urged people to remain patient.

“We have to stay the course. You know, we really don’t want to have to start this over,” Cameron said.

Health officials believe an expansion of testing is crucial for allowing the state to reopen without causing a huge spike in new COVID-19 cases.

“Widespread testing is absolutely essential,” Locke said. “Next week, we’re going to reevaluate testing and we’re going to be starting a lot more testing.”

Locke said the highest priority for receiving these expanded tests will be employees of nursing homes and hospitals, first responders and people in the health care industry — essentially the people most at risk of exposure.

At this time, officials are still discussing whether grocery store workers fit this criteria of being highest at risk, Locke said in answer to a question.

The Olympic Peninsula has a total of 42 cases reported so far, 28 in Jefferson County and 14 in Clallam County.

Flu season

In addition to slowing the spread of COVID-19, social distancing and community mitigation measures also apparently have shortened the usual influenza season, officials said.

“The flu season appears to have come to an abrupt end,” Locke said. “We’re seeing much less cases of respiratory disease.”

Clallam county hasn’t had a positive flu test in three weeks, said Dr. Allison Unthank, Clallam County health officer, during the Friday morning briefing.

“We actually feel that we prematurely ended the flu,” she said. “These physical distancing measures — handwashing, keeping a little space between you and other people — actually helps for all infectious diseases.”

Few flu cases means that there is more of a chance that respiratory symptoms are COVID-19 and both county health officers want to eventually increase testing to be able to test all respiratory patients.

As of Friday, Clallam County has had a total of 14 positive cases out of 833 tests conducted, with 785 negative and 34 pending. There had been 10 recovered cases as of Monday, Unthank said.

Jefferson County had a total of 28 positive cases out of 713 tests conducted, with 677 negative and eight tests pending, Locke said.

Jefferson County has not had a new confirmed case since last Thursday, April 9, and Clallam had two new cases confirmed on Wednesday from out-of-county exposure, officials said.

“This number is staying very stable, we hope that is good news,” said Locke Thursday afternoon at the Jefferson County Health Board meeting.

“We’re not able to do the amount of testing we would like to do to be completely confident that this represents a decrease in Jefferson County, but the fact that this trend has really held stable for the last week strongly suggests that is does.”

Both counties are preparing for the eventual opening of the economy after Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay-home order is lifted.

The planned date is May 4, although officials are predicting it may be extended. It would be done in phases, not all at once, to prevent a possible uptick in cases that could reverse social distancing efforts so far, officials said.

“We’re not through it yet. We are not actually on the down slope yet for our curve,” Unthank said. “And before you would want to relax stay-at-home measures, you really want to be on the down slope, but we’re close though.

“If we release everything today, we would go back to the same peak we would’ve had six weeks ago and all of this work — and frankly suffering of many members of the community — would be for nothing.”

“We really do have to stick it out,” she added. “We have to get to the finish line with this, but we’re very very close.”

A model released by the University of Washington predicted that the curve in rural counties in the state would crest at the end of the month, Locke said.

“We’re still in that danger zone, but based on that model, we should’ve been seeing more activity this week then we are,” Locke said. “So we’re cautiously hopeful that the surge in most areas of rural Washington have been averted for now.”

Models show that the state is in a precarious position right now and officials can’t afford to reopen things too quickly, said Locke.

“If, for instance, we were to declare victory and stop the social distancing at this point, things would start rapidly accelerating again,” Locke said. “Within two weeks we would be back on the exponential curve and would see rapid growth in hospitalization cases.”

Unthank discussed different phases, containment, community mitigation and finally suppression, the latter starting possibly on May 4.

“Suppression is where we actually start to slowly and responsibly go back to a more normal life, but then we also need to be able to capture cases as soon as they arrive, so we can isolate and quarantine based on that,” Unthank said.

To be able to shift to suppression, case numbers need to consistently be going down for 14 days —the incubation period for COVID-19 — and more expanded testing capabilities, officials said.

Unthank said she believes that Clallam is on track to do that as long as people continue to stay home and social distance.

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