OLYMPIA — Washington officials Monday called for $100 million to help respond to the novel coronavirus, as the state faces a swelling number of fatalities and confirmed cases.
That request to state lawmakers came as Gov. Jay Inslee and state Department of Health Secretary John Wiesman talked about potential drastic measures to curb the spread of coronavirus, from school closures to canceling large events.
Inslee and Wiesman called on residents to wash their hands, stay home from work if sick, and consider avoiding large crowds, especially for people older than 60 or who have chronic health conditions.
“Our priority now is to slow the spread of this dangerous virus,” Inslee said during a news conference dealing with the state’s response.
As of noon Monday, 18 people in King and Snohomish counties had been diagnosed with COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, according to the DOH. Six people have died.
“But, given the movement of people around our state, it’s certainly possible that the virus is spreading in other counties, too,” said Wiesman.
Another 231 people are being closely monitored by public health officials, also as of noon, according to DOH. Those people include close contacts of already confirmed cases and individuals who have returned from China within the past two weeks.
On Monday morning, Wiesman told lawmakers that health officials are shifting their focus from containment to preparing hospitals and health care facilities for a wider spread of cases.
Officials want to avoid strain on the health system by making sure patients with mild symptoms can recover at home, Wiesman told lawmakers on the Senate Ways and Means Committee.
“The second piece of that work is how do we increase the surge capacity in our health care systems,” he said. “For increased number of seriously-ill folks.”
DOH is speaking with education officials to discuss what kinds of plans they need if the state orders schools to be closed or dismissed early, Wiesman said. And the agency is speaking with businesses to help them prepare.
Health officials are encouraging people to wash their hands for a full 20 seconds, Wiesman said.
The agency has also given thought to “social distancing” measures, such as school closures, canceling or postponing large public events, and putting in place travel restrictions.
“These are all things that have been in our plans, these are nothing new to us in public health,” he said. “They are not things that widely or often get implemented in the United States.
“So there is a lot socializing that has to happen about these and why we would use these, and when we might use these,” added Wiesman. “So that the public understands what we are doing.”
To make sure the state has enough money to properly respond, Wiesman asked lawmakers for $100 million in the supplemental operating budget now being drafted by lawmakers.
That’s a sharp increase from the money lawmakers had been considering before the fatalities and spike in confirmed cases. A Senate proposal passed last Thursday included $10 million for coronavirus response.
A House budget plan included $5 million specifically for virus response, and another $14.5 million more broadly for the public-health system.
In the 42 days of the state’s response to coronavirus, DOH has spent $2.3 million, which Wiesman said amounted to about $60,000 daily.
On any given day, 100 to 150 DOH staff are working on the response.
Since Friday, the state has been able to conduct its own coronavirus tests, according to Wiesman, which will allow for faster results.
“If we get samples into the lab today, we’re able to get results today,” Wiesman said. “That’s incredibly important and helpful as we do our outbreak investigations.”
The local health districts for King and Snohomish counties have spent another $1.2 million between them so far.
Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, said she scheduled Monday’s briefing to help keep lawmakers “flexible and open-minded” on the funding as the legislative session moves toward its scheduled end March 12.
“We want to make sure that we leave Olympia with the resources we need, should this become a very serious pandemic,” Rolfes, chair of the Ways and Means Committee, said at the meeting.
Before Monday’s briefing, Rep. Eileen Cody, D-West Seattle, sponsored a bill to take $50 million from budget reserves to respond to the virus. Shortly after Monday’s briefing, Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-University Place, introduced legislation to draw $100 million from budget reserves to fund the DOH request.