Editor’s note: This story was reported just prior to Clallam County’s first confirmed positive case of the COVID-19 coronavirus. — MD
A fourth North Olympic Peninsula resident — all are from Jefferson County — has tested positive for the highly contagious COVID-19 respiratory virus.
The man in his 60s is in isolation and had possible out-of-county exposure to the virus, Jefferson County Health Officer Dr. Tom Locke said March 17 in a press release.
Locke said all who were in close contact with the man during the period of possible exposure have been contacted.
“Unfortunately, we expect to see more cases of COVID-19 in our county in the coming days and weeks, especially as testing has become more available,” he said.
The coronavirus continued March 17 to tighten its grip on the North Olympic Peninsula resources that are intended to combat it.
Clallam County Sheriff Bill Benedict and District Court Judge Dave Neupert are working to reduce the number of inmates by 35 percent in the close confines of the facility.
Neupert may commute some sentences and law enforcement could issue summons without jailing people arrested for nonviolent crimes, Benedict said on March 17.
The Port Angeles, Port Townsend, Chimacum, Quilcene and Brinnon school districts started handing out free breakfasts and lunches to families with children ages 2-18 as on March 17 after Gov. Jay Inslee shut down schools statewide through at least April 24, Port Angeles schools superintendent Marty Brewer said.
The Port Townsend School District has partnered with the YMCA to provide emergency K-5 childcare for first responders and health care workers. Families who need the service will need to complete online forms and wait to be contacted by the district.
Inslee on March 16 also announced restrictions through March 31, including a statewide closure of sit-down service at restaurants, a limit on event gatherings to no more than 50 people, and the two-week closure of theaters, bowling alleys, fitness centers and hair salons.
Clallam County health officials scrambled for test kits and basic protective gear such as face masks needed by nurses and first responders.
Testing is limited to hospital patients, and, on an outpatient basis, first responders, people in long-term care facilities and hospital workers, Clallam County Health Official Dr. Allison Berry Unthank said Mar ch 17at a twice-daily coronavirus briefing.
With 160 test kits left in a county of 75,000 people, Unthank said state officials are denying the county more test kits until someone tests positive for the virus.
“We can’t have any until we get a positive test, but we can’t get tests to find out if anyone is positive,” she said.
“We are basically operating under the assumption that people with COVID-19 are here, and we can’t diagnose them and test them.”
There have been 114 people tested in Clallam County. Only 21 tests have come back negative and 93 are pending, Unthank said.
“The frustration is that we are getting very mixed messages from the state and from the federal government right now,” she said.
“If we have enough cases locally to merit closing schools, then we have enough cases locally that merit getting us masks and some test kits.
“We need a comprehensive plan on what the plan is for the entire state, not just for King County and Snohomish County, but how do you plan to take care of the rest of us, too?”
In Jefferson County, health officials are awaiting results of 73 pending tests. Out of 175 patients tested, 98 have come back negative.
There were 133 residents tested as of March 16.
Locke did not return calls for comment March 17.
“It is very important to stay home when you are sick, and we encourage community members to assist friends and family who may need to stay home,” he said in the press release.
State Rep. Mike Chapman of Port Angeles, who attended the Clallam County meeting, said the lack of test kits is “not a money issue” because lawmakers recently approved $200 million for COVID-19-related spending.
He pledged at the meeting to find out more about the delay.
“What I don’t know is how many kits the state has,” Chapman said in a later interview.
“The whole country is a little short right now.”
Kelly Cooper, director of policy and legislative relations for the state Department of Health, said later in an email to Chapman that the agency is reaching out to county officials on testing and “the issues with potential quarantine of those who have been exposed.”
She said the agency does not issue or release test kits to health departments.
“So we are reaching out to them to find out what’s causing the misunderstanding,” Cooper said.
Unthank said that, under the circumstances, anyone with respiratory symptoms should act as though they have COVID-19 by staying home until they are symptom-free for 72 hours.
She said she has talked to hospital officials and dental clinics about limiting non-essential procedures.
“They lack personal protection equipment,” she said of dental clinic staff.
The COVID-19 virus “aerosolizes,” Unthank added.
“We have to be assuming that folks who are getting dental care do have COVID-19.”
Visitors are being screened, and their access to Olympic Medical Center patients limited, a hospital official said at the briefing.
The hospital cafeteria has been closed to visitors.
Jefferson Healthcare hospital also has limited access, and its cafe is closed.
The Quileute Tribe shut off public access to its reservation and the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe closed its casino as well as the Elwha Klallam Heritage Center and Carnegie Center in Port Angeles, tribal officials said Tuesday.
The Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe’s 7 Cedars Casino was scheduled to shut down at midnight for two weeks, a clerk said late March 16.
YMCA locations in Sequim, Port Angeles and Jefferson County also are closing for two weeks due to Inslee’s emergency declaration to close recreational facilities, according to a press release.
The YMCA will continue to provide full-day childcare services to families in need during school closures at our licensed childcare sites beginning Tuesday at Dry Creek Elementary School in Port Angeles and Salish Coast Elementary School in Port Townsend.
Olympic National Park late Marh 17 announced the closure of the park’s Visitor Center & Wilderness Information Center in Port Angeles, the Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center and the Hoh Rain Forest Visitor Center until further notice.
Winter operations at Hurricane Ridge also ended as of March 17.
Park entrances, hiking trails and campgrounds will remain open, but park visitors are asked to purchase their park passes online.
Benedict said he wants to reduce the current jail population of 108 inmates to 70 or 80 — the facility has a capacity of 120 — to achieve social distancing, defined as staying at least 6 feet from people.
The virus is spread by being that distance apart from an infected person, who spreads the infection by droplets, for at least 15 minutes of exposure. It also can be transmitted via those droplets from flat surfaces.
Benedict said people arrested for theft, shoplifting and trespassing, for example, can be cited without jailing them.
“Some people who are serving time for misdemeanors, I can put on electronic home monitoring,” he said in a later interview.
If someone is arrested and has COVID-19 symptoms, “we don’t take them,” Benedict added.
Port Angeles Schools Superintendent Martin Brewer said lunches and the next day’s breakfasts are being distributed from 11:30 a.m.-12:15 p.m. at sites listed at www.portangelesschools.org.
The district is seeking guidance from state officials on supplying learning resources to students, some of whom lack internet service and computers.
“It’s a complex issue,” Brewer said.
“It’s a challenge statewide as it relates to equity and how we distribute materials.”