Continued reopening of Washington counties would be unwise, state health secretary says

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The chance for a restart on allowing Washington counties reopening through Gov. Jay Inslee’s “Safe Start” plan phases isn’t looking likely based on the latest data as state health officials point to signs causing concern over a new wave of the disease.

“(COVID-19) at the moment is spreading too quickly in our state to reopen safely,” Washington State Secretary of Health John Wiesman said during a remote media briefing July 22. He and other health officials gave an update on COVID-19 in the state, with data pointing to a continued resurgence of the disease.

Wiesman was asked whether or not there would be an extension of a pause on counties moving into subsequent phases of the state’s “Safe Start Washington” plan. The pause, issued by Inslee at the start of the month, had already been extended once and currently is scheduled to run through July 28.

Acknowledging that Gov. Jay Inslee had not made a formal extension as of the July 22 press call, Wiesman expressed a belief that current trends in COVID-19 spread would make continued reopening an unwise decision.

Washington State Health Officer Kathy Lofy provided data showing an increase of the disease’s spread, expressing concern over an increase of the positivity rate of COVID-19 tests. That rate had a seven-day rolling average of 3.8 percent on June 15, but increased to 5.8 percent as of July 13. A higher percentage of positive tests implies greater disease activity, she said, as did increases in hospitalizations that data showed.

Lofy also presented data showing cases by age group, which has shifted in Washington through the outbreak. Initially, individuals 80 and older had the most cases around late March and early April, but after a period of weeks where the disease appeared more “under control,” younger individuals began to make up more of the cases, specifically those ages 15-29 in the last week of June.

The state’s disease modelers did a similar analysis of hard-hit Florida, showing that through June more cases were in younger age groups, but by the end of the month there was an across-the-board uptick in the disease. Lofy said Washington health officials have been looking into “whether our current trajectory is putting us on the same path that Florida was on,” which could mean a resurgence in disease spread to older, more vulnerable age groups.

“We’re very concerned that we don’t head down the same path that Florida did,” Wiesman said, specifically with regard to the broad spread among all age groups.

Earlier in the week, the Department of Health returned all pending applications for moving into later phases of Safe Start Washington. Wiesman explained that by the time the pause could be lifted the applications would be at least four weeks old, and the department would require more up-to-date information.

Clark and Cowlitz were among the counties that had pending applications to move into Phase 3 of Safe Start Washington.

Lofy pointed to a potentially positive trend in the first week of July, the latest comprehensive data available, that showed a “fairly flat” rate of spread. She said that a similar rate the next week would warrant more confidence in the trend, noting that the Fourth of July holiday may have affected individuals seeking care.

Regarding potential changes to planned reopenings of K-12 schools in the fall, Inslee’s Chief of Staff David Postman said “it’s an ongoing conversation,” adding that the governor has been talking with district superintendents across the state as well as State Superintendent for Public Instruction Chris Reykdal.

Postman said that any decision would come from a consensus among superintendents across the state, noting it was after the initial closing of schools in the Puget Sound area that district leaders across Washington had asked for a statewide closure.

“We don’t have that (consensus) right now,” Postman said.

“The decision to open school and how to open school in the fall is probably one of the most complex and important decisions that communities can make,” Lacy Fehrenbach, state deputy secretary of health for COVID-19 response, said.

“We really lost the momentum from the very early days when we were able to bend that curve down,” Wiesman remarked when looking at recent trends in the disease.

Staying at home remains the best way to stop the spread, though the health secretary acknowledged that the state was not in the same level of lockdown as it was when the outbreak began.

“What’s so important right now is that we have fewer, shorter and safer interactions,” Wiesman said.

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