Local officials warn against gatherings as COVID cases climb post-Thanksgiving

RaeLynn Ricarte

At a press briefing last week, local health district officials and emergency managers issued an urgent warning about what they believed would happen if community members held Christmas and New Year’s gatherings as they have in year’s past.

They said there was a “huge fallout” of new COVID-19 cases after Thanksgiving and numbers could climb high enough in January to overwhelm hospitals across the nation if people did not change stay home and limit social contacts.

“We can make a decision to be part of the solution or we can be greedy and do what’s not working,” said Dr. Sam Artzis, health officer for Northeast Tri County Health District.

It has been frustrating, he said, to have people refuse to follow Gov. Jay Inslee and the state Department of Health’s guidelines to reduce spread of COVID-19 out of the belief their civil rights were somehow being violated.

“People so set in religious and philosophical beliefs can’t see their way to compromise,” said Artzis.

If people don’t comply with masking, social distancing and taking extra sanitation measures, he said patients who needed medical attention for heart issues, strokes or other serious health problems might compete for car with life-threatening cases of COVID-19. As of press time Monday, the health district reported 218 hospitalizations from virus exposure in its service area, which is Ferry, Stevens and Pend Oreille counties. Since Nov. 20, there have been four deaths from the disease, three in Stevens County and one in Pend Oreille County. In total, there has been one death in Ferry, three in Pend Oreille and 11 in Stevens.

As of press time on Monday, the health district reported 803 positive cases in Stevens, 104 in Ferry, and 298 in Pend Oreille. The district now estimates that one person in eight within the three counties has contracted the virus. As the number of local cases continues to climb, patients are being transferred to hospitals outside the region, said Matt Schanz, executive director of the health district.

He said it could become a problem to find places to house seriously ill COVID-19 patients if hospital beds are all full.
“The system is very taxed right now,” he said. 

By Dec. 1, the health district had reported that half of the confirmed COVID-19 cases in Stevens, Ferry and Pend Oreille counties occurred during the month of November. That followed Halloween gatherings and people deciding to resume social events due to “COVID fatigue,’’ said Schanz. He said increased local COVID-19 transmissions mirrors what is taking place across the state and nation.

The Washington State Department of Health reported on Monday that 3.1 million people have been tested for COVID-19, with 177,447 confirmed cases. From these, there have been 11,544 hospitalizations and 2,925 deaths, a mortality rate of 1.6%. Across the U.S. there have been 14.4 million total COVID-19 cases and 280,135 deaths.

Adenea Thompson, public information officer for Stevens County Emergency Management, said at Friday’s press briefing that people need to step up and be role models for other community members.

“We are in a dire situation,” she said.

She commended Christa McDonald, president of the Colville Chamber of Commerce, for recently putting up holiday decorations at the south roundabout while wearing a mask. She said that type of conscientious effort even outside was needed to combat the disease that was taking and endangering lives across the nation.

“Your actions speak a lot louder than your words,” she said. “We need to do it because it’s the right thing to do.”

Artzis said area school districts had done a remarkable job of reducing spread of the virus by instituting stringent sanitation and social distancing protocols. 

“We’re seen very good success with these measures that we’ve tried to get the community to do,” he said. 

Schanz said there was good news on the horizon with vaccines coming soon from two major pharmaceutical companies. He said Pfizer was expected to release its vaccine by Dec. 15 and the first doses would go to medical workers and others with greater exposure to COVID-19. By the end of the month, he anticipated the health district would have several hundred doses of the vaccine available. It would take several more months for the vaccine to be widely available, he said.
Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new quarantine guidelines last week for people who have been exposed to COVID-19. Schanz said the previous guideline required a quarantine of 14 days, but four days have been shaved off for people exhibiting no symptoms. However, he said there had been cases where symptoms did not emerge until day 13 so there was a small chance that people who shortened their quarantine stay could transmit the infection to others when they went back out in the community.
He said the new CDC guideline was a recognition that a two week quarantine can impose personal burdens on people, including economic hardship and physical and mental health issues. 

“If you can, it’s still best to do the 14 days,” he said. 

As COVID-19 transmissions increase, the White House Coronavirus Task Force recommends that people over the age of 65, or with significant health conditions, not enter indoor public places where anyone is unmasked due to the immediate risk. These populations are more likely to develop life-threatening complications from the disease and are urged by the task force to have grocery and medications delivered to their homes if at all possible.

The Washington Department of Health announced on Friday that more than one million users have activated WA Notify, a new tool that officials encourage people to use to stop spread of COVID-19. WA Notify can be added to a person’s smart phone so they can be alerted if they spent time near another user who later tested positive for the virus. The technology is billed as being privacy-preserving and reportedly developed by Google and Apple to work without collecting or revealing any location or personal data of the user.

Also last week, Inslee loosened restrictions on religious gatherings following the U.S Supreme Court striking down New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s restrictions on religious activities.
The nation’s high court ruled in that case: “Even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten. The restrictions at issue here, by effectively barring many from attending religious services, strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty.”

Inslee now allows religious organizations to hold outdoor services with up to 200 individuals, regardless of location, so long as physical distancing and masking takes place.