Days after Wash. Gov. Jay Inslee signed an order outlining a phased approach to reopening the state, officials from Klickitat County’s Unified Command presented the latest information on the public health crisis to the White Salmon City Council, and outlined what reopening Klickitat County might look like.
Inslee’s May 1 order named 10 counties that could immediately apply for reopening, based on their low case rates and the fact they did not have a death related to the disease. Although Klickitat County was not listed as one of the 10 less-burdened counties, the order allows for it to apply for a variance by submitting a reopening plan once criteria are met and, pending approval by State Secretary of Health John Wiesman, reopen non-essential activity in phases.
To even apply, a county must have no new COVID-19 cases over a three-week period and a positivity rate of 2 percent or lower.
According to Interim Public Health Director David Kavanagh, cases in Klickitat County have been confirmed at least up to May 6, meaning the county must wait until at least May 27 to apply. Kavanagh also said the positivity rate within the county sat at around 4 percent.
“Every time we get a new case, it invalidates our chance to do a variance,” Kavanagh said.
A variance, if approved, would allow the county to move to phase two of the opening, which would allow for certain businesses to reopen and gatherings of no more than five people outside the household each week.
County officials are still in discussion with Secretary Wiesman, Kavanagh said, to map out a pathway forward.
“A lot of that application stems on the Board of Health approval, a health officer approval, Board of County Commissioners approval, (and) a thorough plan to address (four metrics) that we are continually working on,” Kavanagh said. “It is a pretty lengthy application, but that doesn’t deter us from pursuing it if that’s something that we’re asked to do.”
Kavanagh spoke to the four metrics health officials are observing across the county to measure the impact of the outbreak within its borders: Testing capacity, quarantine/isolation shelters, contact tracing and exposure to high-risk populations.
On the testing side, Kavanagh said the county is sitting on “quite a lot of testing capacity into the next few months.” Kavanagh also said testing has expanded since CDC guidelines have opened the criteria up to allow for more tests. Klickitat Valley Health and Skyline Hospital are both using saline as the testing media, which he said should have a quicker turnaround time once tests are ordered.
Kavanagh also praised efforts by staff members and volunteers to take on contact tracing.
“We’ve been able to do the case investigation, notify the close contacts, establish the quarantine procedures, all within 24 hours of getting a confirmed report,” Kavanagh said. “I think we’re able to do that because we have some pretty dedicated staff and we’re a bit smaller, and we haven’t had the large daily caseloads.”
Kavanagh added that the County has a contingency plan in case there is a confirmed cluster here.
Speaking on the status of a quarantine shelter, Kavanagh said the county has received funds to locate shelter for exposed people, but many of the traditional options they have looked at were just not sustainable financially.
“We still have to find a way to quarantine and isolate people (who) are either homeless or not wanting to quarantine at home,” Kavanagh said.
Kavanagh said every case so far has requested to isolate at home, but that will not always be the case.
“You can imagine how some may not want to jeopardize the health of loved ones and would need these facilities,” Kavanagh wrote in a follow-up email.
Kavanagh added finding facilities to quarantine people is also crucial in case the Klickitat County Board of County Commissioners chooses to pursue a variance to reopen early.
Asked about possible alternatives following up after the presentation, Kavanagh said the county is looking at non-traditional shelters to house such individuals.
“Many counties have the ability to simply rent out a motel or hotel — we do not. Alternatives we are pursuing are ‘pods’ or ‘pallet’ sheltering and also FEMA trailers. Each one of these alternatives has unique challenges,” Kavanagh wrote in an email.
For the high-risk populations, Kavanagh said officials are focusing especially on the adult care facilities and the migrant worker populations. Health officials are making daily calls to check on supplies, Kavanagh said.
EOC Director Jeff King added that the county is participating in meetings with other public and private landowners and stakeholders to craft a coordinated approach to reopening activity around the Columbia River Gorge.
“We had a meeting last Friday, and generally speaking, that meeting was very good in my opinion. It included U.S. Forest Service, (Washington State Parks), and other major public and private landowners discussing Gorge-wide, all seven counties represented, on how we are going to manage the opening of the Gorge for recreational activities and try to coordinate those efforts so none of the smaller rural towns and cities are overwhelmed by visitors when its still not appropriate,” King said.
“I’m glad to see that’s happening at this juncture, where in the beginning when we went into the restrictions, everyone was doing their own thing on their own timeline mostly,” King added.
Kavanagh added that travel seems to have been the main cause of confirmed cases linked to Klickitat County. According to Kavanagh, there has not been a consistent curve of cases within the county.
“We’ve never had a steady curve locally, which suggests some sense of travel to our county. Which through our case investigation, there is a clear link of it coming to Klickitat County and not really a community-wide spread,” Kavanagh said.
King also reported the county has met with fruit growers and processors to hear feedback as it relates to migrant workers, who reportedly requested additional housing to meet new social distancing guidelines from Washington State Department of Labor and Industries. Kavanagh added to that point that officials are working with the growers and processors to work out how to order testing for symptomatic migrant workers.
Most non-essential activity in Klickitat County is at a standstill as some counties in Washington begin to reopen by moving to phase two. Recreation in the state has been open to the public since May 5, but while both Oregon and Washington have chosen to open many recreational areas, parks in the Columbia River Gorge remain closed out of concern they will be flooded with visitors, potentially causing local outbreaks.