Toss the concert tickets and pick up the earbuds. Gather in fellowship at bible study rather than in the sprawling Sunday church service.
In the age of coronavirus, these are the disappointing but wholly reasonable and responsible realities under Gov. Jay Inslee’s Wednesday order for King, Pierce and Snohomish counties.
On the day the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, the governor announced he was prohibiting gatherings of more than 250 people in King, Snohomish and Pierce counties. Standing with him at the announcement and beside him in the public-health battle against the novel coronavirus were elected executives of those counties and the mayors of Seattle, Tacoma and Everett.
King County Executive Dow Constantine announced further social distancing and sanitation requirements on smaller public gatherings, though they are not banned.
The goal is to slow the transmission of the virus and limit the number of COVID-19 cases to buy time for the health infrastructure, such as testing, to catch up and to limit inundation of hospitals with ballooning cases. Members of the public should voluntarily comply with the new guidelines while continuing to take responsibility for their health and the health of those around them. We all should follow the social distancing guidelines.
Don’t panic. The escalation is a necessary step to meet the evolving nature of this public-health threat. Constantine said that businesses, such as restaurants and movie theaters, could continue to operate as long as they demonstrate they can follow the guidelines.
As the U.S. epicenter of the epidemic, Washington’s experience has exposed weaknesses in the country’s health-care system and emergency preparedness. Most troubling is The New York Times’ Monday story about federal and state public-health officials’ delayed response to Seattle Flu Study researchers’ request to retroactively test samples collected back in January. Public-health officials could have known much sooner that the virus was spreading.
Our public-health system is showing signs of stress, including still scarce tests, uneven access to primary medical care, and potential shortages of equipment, beds and health workers. We have also seen local officials go to court over quarantine facility siting. Looming on the horizon are likely exacerbation of economic inequality.
Officials have identified 268 presumptive cases of COVID-19 and 29 related deaths in Washington and estimate as many as 1,000 are as yet undiagnosed. Without these proven, effective public-health interventions, the general community’s infection rate is expected to double within a week and grow exponentially thereafter.
While most people who contract the virus will experience mild symptoms, older people, pregnant women and those with underlying medical conditions carry significant risk of serious illness. They all need our protection.
On Wednesday, Inslee also called on school districts to prepare contingency plans if the schools need to close, including child care for essential public-health workers and nutrition programs for students who rely on schools for meals.
Joining the Northshore, Lake Washington and Bellevue districts, the Seattle Public School District announced Wednesday it would be closing schools for at least two weeks.
As the situation evolves, elected leaders and public-health officials must continue to be thoughtful, carefully weighing benefits and potential costs while respecting civil liberties.
Transparency, particularly in use of extraordinary powers, cannot be sacrificed even in this crucial moment.