Officials: With recent increase in COVID-19 cases, Snohomish County not yet ready to apply for Phase 3

Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers speaks to reporters via Zoom Friday.

Given a recent spike in COVID-19 cases and other metrics, Snohomish County officials said Friday they will not be submitting an application for Phase 3 under Gov. Jay Inslee’s Safe Start Plan.

“I know that if we applied today, we would be denied,” County Executive Dave Somers said in a media briefing Friday, acknowledging that decision would be disappointing to those who have been planning larger-scale celebrations such as weddings or July 4th gatherings.

Both Somers and Snohomish Health District Health Officer Dr. Chris Spitters told reporters they will continue monitoring data in the coming days to determine when to proceed with an application to the Washington State Secretary of Health.

The Phase 2 approval letter required monitoring for at least three weeks before Snohomish County would be eligible to apply for Phase 3. The Snohomish Health District has been providing weekly reports to the Washington State Department of Health, and the most recent snapshot is now available for June 2-20, 2020.

“We may not be far away from applying but we need to understand what is happening with our trends,” Somers said.

During Friday’s briefing, the county executive stressed that a future decision to move the county into Phase 3 “is really in your hands,” and reiterated the importance of wearing face coverings and practicing social distancing while out in public.

“We need everyone’s help to move Phase 3 and 4 and beyond,” Health Officer Spitters added. He referred to the news earlier in the week, when 75 new COVID-19 cases were reported in one day — the largest daily number in more than two months.

The trend of increasing cases in the county is similar to what other counties in the state and other states are seeing, Spitters and Somers said. The county needs time to monitor the trend in new daily case reports, and track COVID hospitalizations to determine whether this was a blip or an early signal of increased cases on the horizon. (Look for more details on the latest numbers, along with related graphs and charts, in our COVID-19 update later Friday.)

The new cases generally are occurring in people who are “a little bit younger,” Spitters said —  a midway age of late 30s to early 40s. And while many of them can be traced to being exposed to someone with COVID-19, an equal number have acquired the virus via community transmission — meaning they don’t an identified risk factor, such as working in a health care facility, visiting someone in such a facility, or working in a high-risk occupation. “It really means we don’t know where it came from,” Spitters said.

Spitters also said the county continues to receive reports of many large gatherings, and he provided further detail about what he had described in Tuesday’s media briefing as a large party over the weekend, which included an attendee diagnosed with COVID-19. The party of 40-70 mostly young adults occurred Friday, June 19 in Stanwood, and he encouraged those who attended to consider themselves exposed to the virus, to stay home through July 4, and seek testing.

He also encouraged anyone who receives a message from the health district regarding efforts to trace a COVID-19 contact, to return the call the same day.

“Your health, the health of the people around you, and our performance in this is important in limiting transmission and being able to move forward,” Spitters said. “Our pathway to Phase 3 goes through all of us. I urge you to think about others, think about the community at large, wear those face coverings and please work with us in following this guidance.”

Residents and businesses in Snohomish County, as in Pierce and King Counties, must plan to follow Phase 2 restrictions through the 4th of July weekend. This means limiting social gatherings to no more than five people outside the household in a seven-day period. If people do venture out, they should wear face coverings, keep their distance and practice good hand hygiene.

Answering questions from reporters, the two leaders addressed an inquiry about whether Snohomish County would follow the lead of Pierce County, which is considering an application for a modified Phase 2 designation, which would allow for larger outdoor gatherings.

“We are going to take a look at that next week, and see how our numbers are doing,” Somers said. “That is something under consideration but we are not ready to do that at this time.”

Spitters said he wants to focus on Snohomish County, “not what the neighbors are doing.” He also described the decision-making process as “like driving on ice,” being able to keep control at a lower velocity. “If you get going and you have to hit the brakes, it’s going to be a while before you really slow down,” he said.

“Part of our concern is, when we moved into Phase 2, we asked people to socially distance, wear masks, we were very hopeful that we would see continued reduction in case count by using those particular measures,” Somers added. “What we’re seeing is an upward trend.” A decision to loosen restrictions signals to residents “that things are getting better and there is less cause for concern, and that is not the case,” he explained.

Despite the recent spike in cases, both officials said they aren’t anticipating a return to a more restrictive Phase 1, especially since the number of cases in the county’s hospitals are holding steady.

Spitters shared a conversation he had earlier Friday with chief medical officers from area hospitals, who noted “they are already receiving lots of letters requesting medical exclusions from wearing face coverings.” Their general policy “is not to issue such letters,” Spitters said, adding that “the true medical contraindications or reasons not to use a face covering are very limited, and the message is, ‘If you have one of those (contraindications) and you can’t go out in public and use a face covering, stay home.'”

Spitters also addressed a question regarding whether the recent increase in COVID-19 infections could be connected to Black Lives Matters protests following the death of George Floyd. “We haven’t heard about a connection to attending a protest,” Spitters said. “Maybe these cases that reported were in part connected to that, but we are not hearing that from people when we interview them and ask about it.”

Even when Snohomish County reaches the next phase, allowing more businesses and activities to reopen, the county stressed in a separate announcement that it will not mean it will be business as usual. There are guidelines that employers will need to follow through all of the phases. More detailed information is outlined in the Safe Start Plan. Businesses must also wait until they have industry-specific health and safety guidance before reopening within the proper phase. The governor’s office maintains a list of guidance for industries.

— By Teresa Wippel

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