The message on Friday to Gov. Jay Inslee was clear: Skagit County is more than ready to safely move to Phase 2 of reopening, and prolonging closures will cause additional harm to the county’s businesses and residents.
In four letters to Inslee, Skagit County, the county’s eight mayors, nine chiefs of local and tribal police departments, and the county’s Unified Command, implored the governor to reconsider his eligibility requirements and allow the county to apply to move forward to phase 2 of his four-phase reopening plan.
The letters state that the county has developed robust testing capability — including a drive-thru testing site that is testing an average of 200 people a day — contact tracing and disease investigation, and outreach, and has the hospital capacity to handle an increase in COVID-19 cases.
Specially, the letters request that Inslee adjust his eligibility criteria for counties with populations of 75,000 or more to move to Phase 2, including the requirement that a county have fewer than 10 cases per 100,000 residents over 14 days. For Skagit County, that would mean no more than 13 cases over 14 days, a county news release states.
In the past seven days, the county has recorded between zero and one new case a day (zero new cases for three days straight since Monday). However, the county’s total cases in the past 14 days exceeds 13, making the county ineligible to apply to move to Phase 2.
Under Phase 2, hair salons and barbershops could reopen, restaurants could operate dining rooms at 50% capacity, and retailers could open for in-person shopping, among other business activities.
“Just that number alone doesn’t tell the whole story,” Howard Leibrand, the county’s public health officer, said in an interview Friday afternoon. “That number is going to be hard for any of the larger counties to attain, but (Skagit County) is further along in attaining it, and in dealing with positive (cases).”
Leibrand said the ability to do contact tracing — which involves tracking down close contacts of confirmed cases and isolating them to prevent further spread — is a better tool to use than the raw number of positive cases in deciding whether it’s safe to reopen.
The other important factor is whether the county’s hospitals could handle a surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations.
Leibrand said at the peak of hospitalizations in late March, Skagit Regional Health reached about 50% of its intensive care unit bed capacity. None were hospitalized at the county’s two other hospitals.
He said the county has 25 ventilators available, and the maximum used at any one time was between 12 and 14.
The letter county’s letter to Inslee also states that due to an inaccuracy in the way testing data is reported to the state, the state Department of Health is reporting an inflated positive testing percentage for Skagit County. The state reports the positive rate is 14%, but the county estimates it is about 5%.
“The immediate closure of many businesses, services, institutions and schools was absolutely necessary to slow the spread of COVID-19,” the county’s letter states. “…However, this cannot be a long-term solution. It will be at least 12-18 months before a vaccine is developed, and Skagit businesses will not survive a long-term closure.”
In an interview on Friday, Skagit County Commissioner Ron Wesen said he had faith in county residents to be responsible — including practicing social distancing and wearing masks in public — as they begin to venture out.
“I have confidence in our citizens to be able to make good choices,” he said. “If they go to a business and it’s not safe to go inside, they can decide to not go in there.”
Wesen said there will be serious ramifications of staying closed on businesses and workers, especially on the county’s small businesses.
The shutdown has also impacted the community’s well-being, the nine police chiefs wrote in their letter to Inslee.
“Remaining in Phase 1 will have the effect of increased calls of service regarding medical/mental health, drug overdose, domestic violence, and fraudulent activities as a result of the pandemic,” the letter states.