Preparing for the next COVID-19 wave; peninsula officials hope for best, plan for worst

It’s the calm before an expected renewed storm and North Olympic Peninsula health officials are struggling to acquire more personal protective equipment for health care workers in preparation for an expected increase in cases as the economy slowly reopens.

They are dealing with the state cutting back on orders to rural counties and battles with larger companies on the open market, county health officials said.

The total number of confirmed cases on the Peninsula held steady at 42 Saturday but N95 masks and other materials are still needed for health care responders, said Dr. Allison Unthank, Clallam County health officer, and Dr. Tom Locke, Jefferson County health officer on Friday.

At the same time, cloth masks are available for the general public through the two county Emergency Operations Centers.

Officials have been struggling with getting enough personal protective equipment (PPE) — masks, gloves, gowns, etc. — throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, due to competing with other parts of the nation who also need the materials.

“The distribution of personal protective equipment right now is kind of a free-for-all,” Unthank said at the Friday morning briefing. “It’s still a market-based system.

“What’s happening is every hospital, every city, every county, every state are buying against each other for these same limited resources to try and get them and it’s really whoever has the highest buying power is winning.

“It’s really hurting small rural areas like us,” Unthank continued.

“If you see Olympic Medical Center going up against like the Boston Hospital Association, Olympic Medical Center is going to lose.”

Unthank and her team members have been urging state and federal officials to create centralized distribution for PPE, to avoid the fight for materials, but that has not happened yet, she said.

“We unfortunately don’t have the finances to fight against that in the way that larger cities do,” Unthank said.

Clallam County Undersheriff Ron Cameron said the county did receive a PPE shipment from the state late Friday.

“We don’t know what all is in there. We’re doing inventory,” Cameron said. “It’s masks and gowns, but it’s not nearly enough.”

Said Locke on Friday: “It’s been a chronic problem since the start of all this. The U.S. just can’t produce nearly enough to meet the need.

“The U.S. got caught unprepared for a pandemic. It’s a problem…I don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel for this one.”

As of Saturday, Clallam County had a total of 14 positive cases of COVID-19, with 11 patients recovered. The number of tests administered was 1,028, with 977 negative results and 37 tests pending.

Jefferson County as of Saturday had a total of 28 positive cases of COVID-19, with 24 patients recovered. The number of tests administered was 760, with 718 returned negative and 14 results pending.

Cloth masks

Both counties have been receiving donations of cloth masks from volunteers that they have been redistributing to those who request them, including to hospital staff, employers, groups of people and individuals.

The Emergency Operations Centers in the two counties have overseen the distribution of the donated masks and other PPE materials, officials said.

The Clallam EOC has received over 10,000 cloth face masks and are scaling back their volunteer center on the reception of donations, said Peter Raiswell, public information officer for the Clallam EOC. Donations still can be taken to the Clallam EOC at the Clallam County Courthouse, 223 E. Fourth St.

The volunteer center at the Vern Burton Community Center, 308 E. Fourth St., will accept donations through Wednesday.

Sequim residents have supply pickup and masks/gown drop-off options at Trinity United Methodist Church, 100 S. Blake Ave.; Sequim Community Church, 950 N. Fifth Ave.; Sound Community Bank, 645 W. Washington St.;and Greywolf Elementary School, 171 Carlsborg Road.

Clallam County individuals and groups can request masks through the Clallam EOC hotline at 360-417-2430.

The EOC is cutting its hours of operation to Monday, Wednesday and Fridays, but will still man the phone line seven days a week. Unthank encourages people who need PPE to call in advance.

While Clallam officials believe they have enough cloth masks for now, Locke continues to ask for more in Jefferson County.

“We want to encourage people to keep it up,” Locke said. “We need masks in health care settings as well.

“We need a huge amount of cloth masks, but the nice thing is they can be reused.

“The reason is, we still think [COVID-19] is out there.”

Jefferson County’s community mask program is being overseen by department of Emergency Management volunteer Linda Roslund. There are four drop-off locations for sewn masks: outside the Jefferson County Library, 620 Cedar Ave., Port Hadlock; outside the Port Townsend Public Library, 1220 Lawrence St., Port Townsend; Food Coop book drop at 414 Kearney St., Port Townsend; and Quilcene Community Center book drop at 294952 U.S. Highway 101, Quilcene.

Residents can pick up face masks from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. Monday through Friday at Salish Coast Elementary School, 1637 Grant St. and the Jefferson County Airport, 191 Airport Cutoff Road; they are available during regular business hours at Safeway Food Store, 442 West Sims Way; Food Coop, 414 Kearney St.; Quilcene Village Store, 294235 US Highway 101; QFC Port Hadlock, 1890 Irondale Road.

At the pick-up locations, masks are first-come, first served and are known to be distributed quickly, officials said.

“When we drop off masks, they’re usually gone within a couple hours, not always, but usually,” said David Codier, liaison officer for the Jefferson Department of Emergency Management.

Keep it up

People have been getting restless with the stay-home order and want to get back to work, but officials are urging the public to continue to social distance and wear masks in public when needed.

“You need to keep your distance to stay safe,”Locke said. “What we’re doing though these community mitigation measures is slowing down transmission.”

Locke explained that the reproduction number (the number of people infected by one positive case) of the virus has dropped from possibly 3.5 to less than 1. Flattening the curve keeps infection from compounding exponentially, meaning that if there were 250 cases, it could easily become 500 then 1000 then 2000 within six-day increments, Locke said.

“As much as we would like, we can’t get rid of this virus.” Locke said. “What we can do now is keep the spread slow. If you dial back the restrictions too fast, you go back to the start.

“We want to be able to maintain that and keep things open and not go back and forth.”

Locke credited much of the successes of social distancing and the community mitigations to the residents who have been following the guidelines.

“People need to take credit for their achievement,” Locke said. “We want it to to be worth it. We want it to be when we open up that it will have been worth the sacrifice.”