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A year like no other: In 2020, COVID-19 upended life in Skagit County

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In the first few months of 2020, Skagit County residents watched the novel coronavirus inflict a brutal toll on countries throughout the world.

At the time, it seemed a far-away problem. Hand-washing and staying home when sick were encouraged, but business largely carried on as usual.

After the first COVID-19 case was reported in the county in early March, followed by the first death two weeks later, it showed that no community — small or large, urban or rural — was immune to the virus as it circulated silently and often between people who showed no symptoms.

Swift measures, including business and school closures, upended life in a way that no one had ever experienced. Unemployment surged and businesses were forced to make extraordinary adjustments to survive.

Forty county residents have died from COVID-19 and 194 have required hospitalization. As of Thursday evening, 3,105 had tested positive, according to Skagit County Public Health.

As we learned more about the virus, mask-wearing and social distancing became the norm and allowed aspects of life to return to normal — in some form. Businesses showed resilience and found new ways to operate.

A new surge of virus cases in the fall led to canceled holiday gatherings at a time when people were craving connection the most.

The end of 2020 brought a glimmer of hope, as two vaccines shown to be safe and effective began to be distributed.

Here are some of the most significant ways COVID-19 impacted Skagit County in 2020:

Choir practice becomes a superspreader event

The first COVID-19 case in Skagit County was reported on March 10 — the same day a Mount Vernon choir practice took place that would later be deemed a superspreader event.

The practice was held before Skagit County had reported any COVID-19 cases and before businesses and schools were ordered to close.

A single symptomatic member of the choir attended the practice, which resulted in 52 infections and two deaths, according to a report by Skagit County Public Health prepared for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The report, which has been cited 236 times according to Google Scholar, provided new insight into how the virus spreads.

The report states that singing may have contributed to the spread through the emission of aerosols — small particles that can linger in the air — and that some infected people are thought to be “super emitters.”

COVID-19 hits nursing homes

As in other communities, Skagit County’s nursing homes and long-term care facilities were hit particularly hard by COVID-19.

In the county, 247 cases and 20 deaths have been tied to long-term care facilities, representing half of the deaths countywide, according to the most recent data from the state Department of Health.

Nursing homes in Burlington and Mount Vernon suffered outbreaks early in the pandemic, and a Burlington memory care center and an Anacortes assisted living facility have battled recent outbreaks.

Meanwhile, nursing home operators struggled to keep up with the rising costs of keeping their residents safe and paying staff.

Mira Vista 02

Mira Vista Care Center in Mount Vernon in August. Vaccinations of residents and staff are scheduled to begin Tuesday.

Skagit Valley Tulip Festival canceled

The Skagit Valley Tulip Festival — the county’s signature event that draws about 400,000 each April — was canceled amid the pandemic.

While the county’s two tulip growers closed their fields to the public to limit COVID-19 spread, they found other ways to bring tulips to the people and keep their businesses alive.

Tulip Town launched a ”Colors for Courage” campaign to allow people to buy bouquets for area nursing homes, hospitals and others, and created a virtual reality mobile phone app for a 360-degree view of the tulip fields at home.

Despite the spirit of innovation and adaptation, there was no denying the economic pain of losing the festival.

A study estimated that festival visitors spent $54 million in 2012, and many Skagit businesses depend on this seasonal influx of revenue. It’s unclear what 2021 will mean for tulips in Skagit County.

Rainbow in Tulip Fields

A rainbow hangs over the fields at Tulip Town on April 11 as workers harvest tulips. The fields were closed to the public in 2020 due to COVID-19.

COVID-19 inflicts economic blow

A sweeping order forced restaurants, gyms, salons, bowling alleys, theaters and many other businesses to close and let go their employees.

There was a more than 3,300% increase in first-time unemployment claims the third week of March, and a 160% increase in need at the Helping Hands Food Bank.

That was just the tip of the iceberg of economic devastation COVID-19 brought to Skagit County. Few sectors were spared and economists said the impact of COVID-19 was unlike previous economic downturns in its swiftness and harshness.

As the county controlled the spread of COVID-19, many businesses were able to reopen late last spring under new restrictions.

While the economy is showing signs of recovery, things remain complicated: working parents have struggled to juggle new demands of helping children with online learning; some businesses have remained closed due to the challenges of operating at reduced capacity; a lapse in federal unemployment benefits have left many without a safety net; and surging COVID-19 cases brought new shutdowns and restrictions in the fall.

A $900 billion stimulus package passed by Congress late last month is expected to bring economic relief, replenishing aid for unemployed workers and small businesses.

Phase 2 Opening 01

Tom Barber, owner of Post Office Barber Shop in Sedro-Woolley, cuts the hair of Oscar Wolken of Sedro-Woolley on June 5.

Skagit County opens drive-thru testing site

Skagit County opened a drive-thru COVID-19 testing site to the public in late April, and encouraged those who thought they had been exposed to the virus — regardless of whether they had symptoms — to get tested.

At the time, most testing was largely limited to symptomatic people and essential workers.

The county added mobile testing and evening hours to expand testing. Weather events including wildfire smoke and high winds posed challenges for the outdoor testing site, and in November the county moved the site from Skagit Valley College to indoors at the Skagit County Fairgrounds.

Earlier this month, the testing site’s long-term future was in question without further government assistance.

As of Dec. 23, the county had conducted 38,528 tests at the drive-thru site, according to data on Skagit County Public Health’s website.

Fairground Test Site 02

People await COVID-19 tests on Nov. 18 at Skagit County’s new testing site at the Skagit County Fairgrounds.

Businesses find ways to adapt

COVID-19 challenges and restrictions forced new ways of doing business.

With their doors closed to customers, many retailers built online stores to offer pickup and shipping. Faced with restrictions on farmers markets and concerned about food going to waste, a number of small farms in Skagit County launched online sales.

Many restaurants expanded outdoor seating, a popular option during the summer months, and some have built creative structures to continue outdoor dining into the cold and wet months.

Some companies pivoted to making hand sanitizer and special equipment to protect health care workers from COVID-19. A DVD rental program has been a bright spot for the Lincoln Theatre in Mount Vernon.

And some businesses have found surprising successes during the pandemic: local flour mills found new customers, and small meat producers saw increased demand due to supply chain issues.

Entrepreneurship is occurring, possibly spurred by the pandemic. This includes a string of new businesses that opened in downtown Mount Vernon over the summer.

Thrift Stores

Hayley Brown, a cashier at the Skagit Habitat for Humanity store in Mount Vernon, disinfects her station in June. The station was equipped with glass windows to give customers and staff a protective barrier from germs.

Schools shift to online learning

After the pandemic shuttered schools in mid-March, students, parents and teachers were forced to embrace online learning.

Teachers had to quickly adapt to digital learning platforms and find ways to connect with students when they were no longer together in a classroom.

An ongoing struggle has been spotty internet access — especially in rural areas — which meant that some students were left behind. Some districts took steps to improve internet access, such as by equipping busses with Wi-Fi and setting up in-person remote learning centers for small groups of students.

In the fall, some public school districts brought back their youngest students for in-person learning with masks, daily health screenings and other safety measures required. Meanwhile, private schools in Skagit County brought students back for in-person classes and some schools turned to outdoor classrooms.

With a surge in COVID-19 cases in late fall, many districts were forced to shift back to all-online learning. In December, Gov. Jay Inslee announced new COVID-19 case metrics to guide school districts in phasing in in-person learning.

Back on campus

Students at Lucille Umbarger Elementary School in Burlington line up Oct. 21 while waiting to check in for the first day of in-person classes.

Community steps up

There has been no shortage of community members stepping up to help those in need during the pandemic.

Here are just some of the stories:

Skagit Gleaners donated thousands of pounds of surplus rescued food to food banks, local groups baked and donated bread to area food banks and school districts, and the Puget Sound Food Hub helped pack and distribute 19,000 boxes of fresh produce purchased from area farms.

Also, a Sedro-Woolley quilting group sewed 3,000 masks for community members, a La Conner couple built an online site to better showcase the town’s businesses, a drive-by parade was held for veterans at long-term care centers, and a Mount Vernon man built desks for children learning at home.

Socially Distanced 101st Birthday 01

Edith Thomas (center) waves Oct. 14 at members of First United Methodist Church in Mount Vernon during her socially-distanced 101st birthday party. The celebration featured about 20 decorated cars with horns honking and drivers waving.

A vaccine and a glimmer of hope

A vaccine arrived in late 2020 as a light at the end of the tunnel.

Skagit County administered it first doses of the first approved COVID-19 vaccine on Dec. 21 to health care workers at Skagit Regional Health.

Vaccinations have begun at Island Hospital in Anacortes and PeaceHealth United General Medical Center in Sedro-Woolley. The Swinomish Indian Tribal Community received 200 doses for medical staff and tribal elders.

High-risk health care workers, high-risk first responders, and residents and employees of long-term care facilities are part of the first tier of the state’s vaccination plan. All workers in health care settings are part of the next group.

Public health officials have said it may take five to six months for the vaccine to reach the general public. They have also stressed that those who are immunized should keep following public health guidelines, because it’s unclear whether those who are immunized can still spread the virus.

— Reporter Jacqueline Allison: jallison@skagitpublishing.com, 360-416-2145, Twitter: @Jacqueline_SVH

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