Public health leaders in Skagit County had varied reactions Wednesday to Gov. Jay Inslee’s new plan to reopen the state’s economy.
The plan, called Healthy Washington, evaluates counties in regions, rather than on their own. Skagit County is now partnered with Whatcom, Island and San Juan counties.
All regions start in Phase 1. They must show a 10% reduction in the two-week rate of new COVID-19 cases and COVID-related hospital admissions, as well as an ICU occupancy of less than 90% and a test positivity rate of less than 10% to move to Phase 2.
In Phase 2, restaurants can reopen indoor dining at 25%, indoor social gatherings of up to five people are permitted, and restrictions on fitness, sports and entertainment establishments are relaxed.
Evaluations will occur every Friday, and on the following Monday regions will move ahead a phase, move back or stay where they are.
County Health Officer Howard Leibrand said Whatcom, San Juan and Island counties are doing better than Skagit at containing the virus, and could help Skagit move to the next phase more quickly than it could on its own.
“We have the benefit of other counties who are doing a bit better than we are,” he said.
In a briefing with county Public Health staff Wednesday morning, environmental health specialist Corrina Marote said the county is at about 248.5 new cases per 100,000 residents over a 14-day period, compared to an all-time high of about 463 cases in December.
Leibrand said he supports the revised metrics for advancing to the next phase.
Inslee’s earlier plan required 25 cases per 100,000 residents in a county to advance, something completely out of reach considering the current spread of the virus.
However, even if this region is able to continue improving and move into Phase 2, Leibrand it’s important to remember that the county still isn’t doing well.
“The dozens of new cases every day is still pretty mind-boggling,” he said.
County Commissioner Lisa Janicki said she has two major misgivings with the new plan.
Her first is that a region’s status could change every week.
Janicki said she fears the county’s residents and business owners won’t have a clear picture of what is allowed at any given time.
She said giving county staff a weekend to communicate whether the region has moved to a new phase isn’t enough time, and doesn’t give businesses time to prepare to reopen if eligible.
“If it’s too confusing to figure out where you are, you’re not going to get compliance,” Janicki said.
She also said she is reluctant to support regionalization if it means the county will lose local control over its public health system, though she acknowledged this isn’t something certain to happen.
Dr. Connie Davis, chief medical officer with Skagit Regional Health, said she supports the new system.
Trends mean something, and responding to them rather than requiring counties to meet specific metrics makes sense, she said.
In a perfect world, Davis said everyone would be able to stay in their homes and end transmission of the virus.
“But that’s not realistic,” she said. “We can’t live like that.”
The plan strikes a middle ground between the risk of spreading the virus and opening up the economy, Davis said.
However, she was reluctant to support the regionalization aspect of the plan, fearing the state may miss localized trends if it only looks at data for a multicounty region.
Commissioner Peter Browning said his only significant concern is that the plan may put business owners in the position of having to quickly open or close their businesses.
Restaurants specifically, he said, need time to buy ingredients and bring in staff to prepare to open. It would be disruptive if they were given approval to open one week, then told to close the next week due to a surge in cases.
“It’s not something you just flick a switch on,” he said.
Otherwise, he said the plan contained “thoughtful, logical steps” to reopening.