As the number of COVID-19 cases skyrocketed in three other states — and Washington state and Jefferson County notched an uptick in cases of the deadly virus — Jefferson County commissioners hesitantly decided Monday to continue reopening the county to public life.
In a 2-1 vote Monday, county commissioners agreed to let stand last week’s decision to ask Olympia to move Jefferson County into Phase 3 of the state’s “Safe Start” reopening plan for businesses, museums, libraries, and group and recreational activities.
Monday’s decision followed the commission’s approval a week earlier to submit an application to the Washington State Board of Health for its step into Phase 3, a request that, if approved, would allow gatherings of up to 50 people, including recreational activities and sports, as well as non-essential travel, half-full theaters, and restaurants at 75 percent capacity (with tables limited to 10 total diners).
Dr. Tom Locke, the county’s health officer, said the number of COVID-19 cases had climbed to 38 by Sunday.
“We’re still doing an investigation on that,” he told the board.
But Locke also cautioned against reading too much into the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus.
There have been more than 2.5 million positive COVID-19 cases found in the U.S., Locke said, adding that there are probably 10 other people who have been infected for every positive test for COVID-19.
“These confirmed cases are the tip of the iceberg,” he said.
What’s more, the current death toll from the disease in the country is approaching 128,000.
“That’s pretty staggering,” Locke said, adding that one in four deaths worldwide from COVID-19 are in the United States.
He noted that hospital intensive care units in Arizona, Texas, and Florida are starting to reach capacity by the high rise in COVID-19 patients, and said those states may need to go back into “full lockdown” to slow the spread of the disease.
The number of cases is increasing in more than 30 other states, Locke said, and added that there has been a steady uptick in coronavirus infections in Washington, which has been driven by new outbreaks in the eastern part of the state.
More local cases
Jefferson County, as well as Clallam, is seeing more cases. Locke said two outbreaks in Clallam are currently under investigation.
In Jefferson County, there have been eight new cases reported in June, raising the total to 38.
Half of those new cases were discovered in people who were not exhibiting symptoms, but had COVID-19 tests in advance of other medical procedures.
Two of the other people who tested positive in June had been discovered to have had contact with patients who earlier had been found to be infected with coronavirus.
No cases have been linked to restaurants, grocery stores, or other public venues.
Instead, health officials have been looking at trips people have made to Seattle as well as other out-of-community travel, plus sources that include family members and out-of-town visitors.
So far, no cases in Jefferson have been linked to the recent protests for social justice, Locke said.
Locke also called out people who refuse to wear masks, and noted that the United States has become the only place in the world where wearing a mask has become a political statement.
“People who are resistant to masking have to reexamine their positions,” he said.
Locke recalled hearing from some people who have questioned the science that supports using masks to slow the spread of COVID-19, and said that additional medical studies that some skeptics have called for would take years.
“That’s just not how it works in health emergencies,” Locke said.
If we waited until there was “absolute proof in everything we do,” he added, “we would be waiting forever.”
“We don’t have years. We have days and weeks to make decisions,” he said. “People who are holdouts should read the writing on the wall.”
People who refuse to wear a mask may start to feel uncomfortable amid increasing public pressure, Locke added.
“They should feel uncomfortable. They are jeopardizing the health of other people.”
“I think it’s that pressure that will ultimately turn the tide,” he said.
Still, Locke noted that a recent survey had shown that an overwhelming majority — more than 80 percent — are wearing masks.
Though the amount of cases in the county may seem low, Locke noted the numbers may be deceiving.
COVID-19 is here, he said.
“It’s just this low level, smoldering kind of infection. The iceberg’s always there,” he said.
Commissioners expressed second thoughts at their meeting Monday about allowing groups of up to
50 people to gather under the Phase 3 of reopening.
Commissioner Kate Dean said she did not take the move lightly, and said the prospect of large gatherings made her nervous.
Commissioner David Sullivan suggested waiting another week or two before submitting an application to move into Phase 3.
“It just seems to me that we really need to look at those areas of vulnerability and not push things too fast,” he said.
Commissioner Greg Brotherton said he was willing to submit the application, as recommended by medical experts, and did not support a delay.
“As our medical professionals have indicated, we are ready for this,” Brotherton said.
“We are going to have to learn how to live in Phase 3,” he added. “If we don’t do it right, we’re going to be going back.”
Locke said the number of people gathering was not as important as their behavior; the use of social distancing, washing hands, masks, limiting contact with others, and other precautions.
Large groups of people are already likely gathering in private settings, he added.
“I have reason to believe it’s already happening,” Locke said. “Certainly in my home county of Clallam I hear about this all the time, of people having parties with no social distancing and no masking. And those are things we’re never really going to be able to enforce.”
Locke also noted that it will take weeks before the state approves the application to move to
After a nearly two-hour discussion, commissioners voted 2-1 to submit a variance application to move from Phase 2 to Phase 3 of the “Safe Start” plan, with Sullivan voting no.