Clallam County will remain in Phase 2 of the state’s COVID-19 reopening plan for at least three weeks, the Board of Health decided Tuesday.
The decision differs from action taken in neighboring Jefferson County, which has applied to enter Phase 3 of Gov. Jay Inslee’s “Safe Start” reopening plan.
The Clallam County health board opted not to vote on a Phase 3 variance application but approved an allowance for overnight camping during Phase 2.
The Clallam County Board of Health will reconsider a Phase 3 application at its next meeting on July 21.
“I do not think it is safe to move forward to Phase 3 at this time,” county Health Officer Dr. Allison Unthank said.
While no new cases of COVID-19 were reported on the North Olympic Peninsula on Tuesday, Clallam reported four new cases on Wednesday, bring the county’s total to 42.
Jefferson County had 38 confirmed cases as of Tuesday.
No deaths have been attributed to the novel coronavirus in the region.
Unthank cited a rise in respiratory infections, a 40-percent masking compliance rate in the Port Angeles area and the West End — an estimate based on informal surveys — and two recent outbreaks in Clallam County as reasons to stay in Phase 2.
“I think we’re at a really critical time,” Unthank said.
“We are seeing a rise in cases locally. We are seeing a rise in local transmission, community transmission.”
Phase 3 would allow for larger public gatherings and more businesses and services, including gyms and libraries, to reopen.
“If we all work together, if we all follow physical-distancing guidelines, if we all wear masks, we can turn this around, and we can still be safe,” Unthank told the Board of Health.
“But if we don’t, I think it is matter of time before we become like the other counties and the other states that are seeing dramatic rises in cases, that are seeing their hospitals overrun.”
Jefferson County commissioners agreed on a 2-1 vote Monday, with David Sullivan opposed, to apply to enter Phase 3.
“The situation in Jefferson is somewhat different,” Jefferson County Health Officer Dr. Tom Locke said in a Tuesday interview.
“Some of the reports are really positive. We’re getting masking compliance in excess of 90 percent in some grocery stores.
“We’ve got a ways to go in other things, but step by step, the community is taking things more seriously,” Locke added.
Four of Clallam County’s recent cases were linked to two recent outbreaks, one at Olympic Medical Center and one at an undisclosed residential center, Unthank said. She said Monday that an outbreak is defined as two or more cases confirmed in a specific site in a short period of time.
OMC officials disclosed that one of the outbreaks occurred there.
Unthank would not release the name of the residential center with the other outbreak.
Health officials provide only the county of residence, gender and decade of age of confirmed COVID-19 cases, she said.
“We never release the place that any of our cases work or live,” Unthank said in a telephone interview.
“I understand why people want to know it. The biggest reason why we can’t share it is because if we start sharing people’s personal information, they won’t talk to us for contact tracing, and we need that contact tracing to figure out these outbreaks.”
Anyone who had contact with those affected by the outbreaks had been contacted by health officials and were tested for COVID-19, Unthank said in a Tuesday interview.
The results of those tests were pending.
“If you’re an OMC patient and you’re worried, if you didn’t get a call from the health department, it’s because you weren’t exposed to one of these people,” Unthank said.
The three Clallam County commissioners, all of whom serve on the Board of Health, held a special meeting late Tuesday afternoon to consider the Board of Health’s recommendations.
Commissioners voted unanimously to approve a resolution to allow for overnight camping in Clallam County parks effective immediately.
At the Board of Health meeting, Unthank recommended that camping be allowed in Phase 2.
“I think focusing on tourists is a bit of a distraction,” Unthank said.
“We know that the virus is here in the county right now. The majority of our infections are actually from county members to other county citizens.
“So I think continuing to focus on tourists is distracting us from focusing on distancing among each other,” she added.
“Camping is a very socially-distanced activity, and I think it is appropriate to allow people to do that.”
The Board of Health voted 6-0 to allow camping in county parks.
“If you drive out along the Hoh, or if you go innumerable other places, all types of camping is taking place throughout the county, both counties as a matter of fact,” Clallam County Commissioner Randy Johnson said.
“It’s not stopped just because we haven’t opened our campgrounds.”
Olympic National Park, Olympic National Forest and Washington State Parks had delayed the reopening of camping facilities in Clallam County pending local action.
The Jefferson County Board of Health approved camping June 18.
“It only affected the county parks immediately, and then by the next week the state parks opened up, and it’s my understanding that Olympic National Park has opened up some west Jefferson sites,” Locke said Tuesday.
“It’s ultimately up to the national park and the national forest, but they’ve been very good about trying to respect the counties and the state plan, and make everything consistent with that.”
Locke, a former Clallam County health officer, said the decision for Clallam County to remain in Phase 2 or enter Phase 3 would be “difficult.”
“What I’ve been telling people, and I think Dr. Unthank is really of this mind, too, is we have to stay ahead of this,” Locke said of the pandemic.
“We can’t let things get out of control and then try to pull them back into control, because doing that is way more costly in every respect then preventing them from getting out of control.”