The measles virus

The ongoing local outbreak of measles has close to three dozen confirmed cases as of Monday afternoon, with Gov. Jay Inslee declaring a public health emergency and the county director of health believing that cases will continue to climb in February.

Clark County Public Health announced Sunday that there were 35 confirmed cases with 11 suspected. On Jan. 25 Inslee announced the declaration, directing state agencies to use Washington resources “and do everything reasonably possible to assist affected areas.” The proclamation will allow use of the nationwide Emergency Management Assistance Compact, through which Washington can request additional medical resources from other states.

Following Inslee’s declaration several local lawmakers acknowledged the help that it would provide. State Sens. Lynda Wilson and Ann Rivers alongside State Reps. Paul Harris, Brandon Vick and Larry Hoff said in the statement that apart from allowing the use of state resources the declaration “brings a heightened public awareness about this dangerous and preventable disease.”

Prior to Inslee’s announcement Clark County Public Health Director Alan Melnick spoke to Clark County Council about the ongoing outbreak, explaining it was likely the county would be dealing with new cases through February. 

Melnick said measles was “exquisitely contagious,” explaining that two hours after a contagious individual left a room susceptible people could still catch the disease. The initial symptoms were also similar enough to other ailments during the current time of year that those unvaccinated wouldn’t know if what they were experiencing was measles or something more benign.

Regarding costs, Melnick said that within the first several days the outbreak had cost the county $31,000, adding that the total cost for the outbreak would likely be several hundreds of thousands of dollars by its end. 

Melnick said his department has had to shift staff from other programs such as the Nurse-Family Partnership, employees whose usual workloads include high-risk individuals like young children, or even food inspectors whose usual work involves billable expenses the county could not collect on.

“This basically impacts everything we do,” he said. 

The Clark County Council made their own public health emergency declaration Jan. 18. Melnick said that declaration is allowing the department to use mutual aid agreements to expand their resources. Speaking before Inslee’s decoration Melnick added such a measure would help bring in federal assets as well.

Melnick said all cases were at ages where the individuals should have been vaccinated based on medical guidelines. 

“All of those cases could have been prevented by a very safe ... and very cheap vaccine,” Melnick said. He explained schools had been cooperative through the outbreak with implementing exclusion policies for unvaccinated students and staff to stay home during the incubation period following discovery of a case.

Melnick said school district superintendents are contacted directly if a confirmed case is found to be someone at one of their buildings. Shared spaces between two or more schools as well as buses that handle multiple routes to different buildings can exacerbate the outbreak given the long time the disease can linger in an area.

Melnick expressed a desire that after the end of the outbreak his department and the schools could work together on outbreak preparedness, better tracking of immunization status and providing more education to parents about vaccines. 

Melnick asked for councilors to follow up with the county school advisory committee as to whether vaccinations would be a topic for them once the outbreak had ended.

Councilor Julie Olson stressed the importance of vaccination to stop future outbreaks of the preventable diseases.

“The idea that it is not dangerous is simply wrong,” Olson remarked about the disease. Melnick said before measles vaccinations became widely available in the 1960s, 400 to 500 individuals died from measles and roughly 50,000 were hospitalized annually. 

“If we lose one child because of this … that’s a tragedy that’s preventable,” he said. 

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