In the past several weeks, Yakima County residents have been allowed to resume activities taken for granted before the coronavirus pandemic — eating inside a restaurant, getting a haircut, attending indoor religious services, going to the gym.
Every restored opportunity, no matter how limited, has felt a little like an early Christmas present. Business owners have missed their customers. Their customers have missed shopping opportunities and meeting friends for a meal or seeing them at church.
It feels great being back out there, and the county’s improving COVID-19 metrics have people eager for more. Could Yakima County move from a modified Phase 1 of Gov. Jay Inslee’s four-phase Safe Start plan to Phase 2 anytime soon? Is reopening possible by the time Christmas comes?
Dr. Teresa Everson, the health officer for Yakima County, has enjoyed sharing some good news after a rough spring and early summer that saw more and more deaths and daily increases in confirmed cases of COVID-19 topping 200 and a testing positivity rate close to 30%. That’s dropped to 6.3% in Yakima County; the state’s goal is 2%, Everson said.
Cases peaked in late June. In one two-week period that month, there was a rate of 754 newly diagnosed cases per 100,000 people in Yakima County, the highest on the West Coast. That number has dropped dramatically, thanks in part to a mask order that took effect in late June.
The rate was 87.1 per 100,000 people from Aug. 30 through Sept. 12. The state’s goal is fewer than 25 cases per 100,000 over two weeks.
Hospitalizations and intubations due to COVID-19 have decreased and are stable, with nine people hospitalized Wednesday and none intubated.
Everson and other Yakima Health District officials and health experts, along with business and community leaders, have worked with the state Department of Health to add more activities for reopening. Since they submitted a Road to Recovery plan to state health officials just before the Fourth of July weekend, it has been updated several times. Yakima, Chelan, Douglas, Benton and Franklin counties remain in a modified Phase 1.
The fact that Yakima County has been able to add activities while remaining in a modified Phase 1 is a testament to how well the county is doing in bringing its COVID-19 numbers down, Everson has said. The county’s metrics have improved as other counties struggled with a resurgence in cases. That continues; cases are increasing in Adams and Whitman counties, the state Department of Health said recently.
“We’ve seen that they’ve been very willing to considering adding piece-by-piece activities. … Most recently we added some additional activities in agritourism,” Everson said. The health district also is exploring a staggered return to in-person instruction in schools.
In more good news, Yakima County has not seen a significant increase in COVID-19 cases with the last several rounds of added activities. A minor increase in cases over the past week relates to additional testing opportunities, Everson said. A total of 31 cases were reported Wednesday, with no new deaths.
Despite the drastic improvements, “We are not close to meeting the existing requirements for moving forward to Phase 2,” Everson said.
“I wish we were at a place where we could move forward faster, but we do still need to be cautious,” she said.
No counties are moving to other phases at this point, no matter their numbers. On July 28, Inslee announced a pause on counties moving to the next phase indefinitely as cases ticked up statewide. There is no indication of when that pause may end.
Allowing counties to move to other phases is entirely up to state officials.
Washington continues to experience different trends from county to county, state health officials said in last week’s statewide situation report. There’s an overall decline in case counts in Western Washington and a plateau in Eastern Washington. But the decrease has slowed in Clark, Pierce, Snohomish and Whatcom counties, and cases are increasing in Lewis County.
In Eastern Washington, decreases have plateaued in Benton, Franklin, Grant and Spokane counties, indicating that risk remains high throughout the state, officials said. Because most people don’t have immunity to COVID-19, an outbreak can spread quickly.
“While we continue to see some encouraging declines in case counts, it is clear we cannot let our guard down,” state Secretary of Health John Wiesman said. “The counties where we are seeing plateaus or increases in case counts illustrate the continued importance of limiting the size and frequency of our in-person gatherings, wearing face coverings and staying home when we are sick.
“We must all consistently take these steps in order to safely reopen schools and protect our communities.”
These recommendations, which should also help slow the spread of influenza, will be in place for a while. Everson can’t provide timelines, nor can anyone else. But on the cusp of flu season and indoor holiday gatherings, they’re more important than ever if people want to see more commercial, social and religious opportunities allowed.
“Really the only way we’re going to take those further steps is taking our case counts down,” said Everson, who strongly encourages people to get flu shots.
Considering everything on the horizon, many are concerned about another surge of COVID-19 infections and deaths. Vigilance is key, said Dr. Robert Williams, chief of hospital medicine at Virginia Mason Memorial hospital in Yakima. Following health directives can make a difference. He said projections from the Institute of Health Metrics at the University of Washington indicate the possibility of a second wave of COVID in the next two to three months.
“Many of us are Seahawks fans, and know that blocking and tackling are key to success in football,” he said. “In this pandemic, face masks, hand washing and social distancing are the blocking and tackling of controlling it at this time. As we head into the fall, I would encourage getting a flu vaccination, and avoiding large social gatherings.”
No one knows what the post-pandemic world will look like. Everson thinks people are getting tired of the phrase “the new normal,” but she also sees a normal that will be different from what we’ve known. She thinks some practices will change, with more emphasis on cleanliness and more efforts to sanitize surroundings.
She expects more people will wear masks when they’re ill, a practice already seen in some countries. As mask surveys continue every two weeks in Yakima County, she’s pleased to see the rate of those wearing them remains high. That, and limiting interactions outside the home, will be especially important in the next few months.
Pandemic fatigue is real, so people also need to take care of themselves.
“Resilience is going to be really key to getting through these next few months,” she said.