As confirmed COVID-19 cases continue to skyrocket on the North Olympic Peninsula, a Joyce couple questioned the need to continue conducting public meetings remotely during a Clallam County commissioners’ meeting on Tuesday.
Both the Clallam County commissioners and the Jefferson County commissioners are conducting meetings remotely in accordance with the emergency proclamation issued by Gov. Jay Inslee, issued at the end of February 2020 and extended several times since then.
The proclamation waives certain provisions of the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) and restricts in-person attendance at government meetings.
Carrie Allen of Joyce told the two commissioners in attendance Tuesday — Commissioner Bill Peach was at a state meeting — that she thought “the governor’s suspension of the OPMA does not prohibit in-person meetings but that the commissioners have chosen not to allow those based on the figure of active COVID cases, which is something that, as far as I know, the last figure I had was 75 per 100,000 in the last two weeks.
“I’m curious if there is going to be an update on that figure,” she added.
The case rate in Clallam County was 1,130 per 100,000 population for the past two weeks with an increase of 122 cases on Tuesday, bringing the total since March 2020 to 6,644 cases. There were 11 people in the hospital as of Tuesday.
The number of confirmed cases, case rate and other information is routinely updated on the Clallam County COVID-19 dashboard at clallam.net/coronavirus. The numbers also are updated almost daily in the Peninsula Daily News.
Clark Allen of Joyce said those living in some rural areas find it difficult to participate in government meetings conducted remotely as they lack internet service and dependable phone service.
“I would just like to voice my concerns over the apparent lack of concern of what people, especially in the rural areas of this county, what our opinions, concerns and views are,” he said.
“It seems like most of us don’t feel like we’re being heard or our concerns are even being addressed … I would urge you to live up to the name of your party and act more democratically instead of totalitarian,” he added.
Carrie Allen said the public can go into the Clallam County Courthouse to conduct other business in person, and so she does not understand why the commissioner meetings are still virtual.
“Are we ever going to have in-person public access again?” she asked. “Especially considering we can still go in and do all of our other courthouse activities. The only thing that we are being barred from is giving in-person public comments to our elected officials, which I think is a complete shame.”
Commissioner Mark Ozias said a need for virtual meetings continues to exist.
“The case rate, as it stands right now, and the strain on our hospital system … there’s still, at least from my perspective, the need for caution,” Ozias said.
“We have at least two departments, the treasurer and auditor’s department, that have had to close for a couple of days this week due to COVID issues, and it seems likely that’s going to continue to get worse over the next couple of weeks,” he added.
“I am certainly very interested in understanding what is the right way for us to think about our public meetings,” Ozias said.
“It’s definitely the priority for all the commissioners to hold safe public meetings, and we prefer to hold them in person, so I expect this to be an ongoing conversation,” Ozias said.
Jefferson County has seen more participation in its county meetings since moving to virtual meetings, according to Jefferson County Commissioner Kate Dean.
“We’ve actually seen more participation in our meetings since moving to virtual,” Dean said. “It’s just easier for people than coming into town.”
Jefferson County, which updates its case rates on Fridays, has had a surge in cases smaller than Clallam’s, with 19 confirmed cases on Tuesday, bringing the county’s total to 1,608, and one person in the hospital.
Dr. Allison Berry, health officer for Clallam and Jefferson counties, was present at the Clallam County commissioners’ meeting.
“We have seen a very significant surge in cases related to the omicron variant,” Berry said.
“At this point, if someone is diagnosed with COVID in our community, it’s reasonable to assume that it is the omicron variant,” she added.
Berry said the surge in cases is a contributing factor to the shortage of testing, which is why area testing facilities are seeing such long lines and pharmacies are sold out of antigen tests.
“There has been such a significant rise in cases throughout the country that is has caused a strain on the testing infrastructure for the entire country, so there are significant supply chain issues when it comes to the rapid antigen test that the rest of us have started to rely on,” Berry said.
One place where rapid tests are available is local public schools, where rapid testing is a necessity, especially as students and teachers return from the holidays and winter sports pick up.
“We are seeing a lot of cases from kids and teachers from the holidays, but not from school, so that’s certainly led to a lot of strain on their systems, just making sure everyone has access to testing, trying to find subs if you have a COVID-positive teacher, those kinds of things are happening right now,” Berry said.
“But so far they’ve been able to keep things open … That is one place right now where we have testing available, and we really have been prioritizing testing there,” Berry said.