Two Clark County councilors pushed back against Gov. Jay Inslee’s mitigation approach to the COVID-19 pandemic in Wednesday morning’s Clark County Board of Health meeting.
Council Chair Eileen Quiring, a Republican, entertained the possibility of Clark County operating on a different timeline than the state for reopening sectors of the economy. Quiring said Inslee was issuing edicts based on outbreaks in the Puget Sound area, not Clark County.
“How could we possibly move into a faster phase than what the governor’s administration might want to do?” Quiring asked.
There are no legal grounds for counties to issue ordinances that conflict with the governor’s current stay-at-home order, advised Emily Sheldrick, chief civil deputy with the Clark County Prosecutor’s Office.
While Clark County trails King, Snohomish and Pierce counties, it still has 313 confirmed cases. That places Clark County behind Spokane County for the seventh-greatest COVID-19 case total among Washington’s 39 counties.
“The natives are restless,” Quiring said. “There are a lot of people who want to be done with this.”
Councilor Gary Medvigy, also a Republican, said he wants to follow the law and let science guide the county’s decisions, but also expressed a desire for local municipalities to have more control over physical distancing orders.
“We have so thoroughly scared every American into staying home,” Medvigy said. “Even if the governor starts reopening society, it’s going to be hard to convince people to have the confidence to come out and live their lives again.”
Wednesday’s conversation comes amid a growing wave of pushback against public health orders.
A group of citizens including state Rep. Vicki Kraft, R-Vancouver, gathered in Olympia last weekend to demonstrate against the stay-at-home order. On Tuesday, the Franklin County Board of Commissioners approved a motion to reject the governor’s order, but Inslee has ordered the county to rescind its resolution. In Snohomish County, the sheriff posted on Facebook Tuesday that he won’t enforce the order, as he believes it’s unconstitutional.
Despite the rising opposition, a poll from the The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research shows that Americans largely stand behind physical distancing, regardless of party affiliation.
According to the poll, which surveyed 1,057 people last week, only 12 percent of Americans say local measures go too far. Twenty-six percent of people believe the measures don’t go far enough.
Close to 60 percent of Republicans and Democrats believe physical distancing restrictions in place right now are “about right.”
Another poll conducted last week by DHM Research showed that of 900 Oregonians surveyed, 82 percent supported Oregon’s stay-at-home order. About 95 percent of Democrats supported the order, and 72 percent of Republicans did too.
More staff needed
The councilors’ comments came toward the end of a meeting at which Clark County Public Health Officer Dr. Alan Melnick outlined necessary steps for the state and the county to ease physical distancing measures.
Melnick said the county needs increased testing, more personal protective equipment for front-line workers and more staff to investigate and monitor active cases of COVID-19.
The department proposes hiring 65 new staff members at a minimum cost of $367,430 per month. An additional $122,447 will be needed to purchase supplies such as laptops, monitors and telephones for the new employees.
The proposal calls for 24 community health workers, 18 public health nurses and one epidemiologist. The remaining positions are office assistants, an accountant, and program coordinators and managers.
These staff additions would allow the majority of Public Health’s communicable disease team to transition from COVID-19 investigation to other communicable disease work.
Finding the money is going to be an issue. The proposal has not yet been submitted to the state Department of Health.
“We’ve got a plan in place,” Melnick said. “The issue is going to be state funding. We would really need to ramp up our contact tracing ability.”
In a press conference Tuesday night, Inslee said the state would bring on 1,500 people to help with case investigation and monitoring. The staff would be a mix of state and local health workers, members of the National Guard and volunteers, according to the The Seattle Times.
Inslee also said the state needs to be able to conduct 20,000 to 30,000 COVID-19 tests per day in order to reopen the economy. Currently the state is conducting 3,000 to 4,000 tests per day.
Risks of reopening
Melnick said a concern with reopening is that hospitals won’t be fully prepared for a surge in cases, which health officials say is likely to happen if physical distancing measures are not relaxed properly.
“If we end up using all of our hospital beds for COVID-19, then people with heart attacks and cancer don’t have a place to go,” Melnick said.
“That was the fear three weeks ago,” Medvigy replied.
Medvigy said he did not want to minimize the consequences of COVID-19, calling it “awful,” but also said he wanted to put things in perspective around what has worked and what can work in the future.
“I haven’t seen any of the positive things we should be focusing on,” Medvigy said to Melnick. “I want to use every tool in the medical quiver out there so we can safely start addressing restoration of society. We’ve essentially destroyed the fabric of society, and I got the argument short-term to save everyone, but now it’s dragging on.”
Melnick said that drastically altering physical distancing methods at this time would likely stress hospitals beyond their bed capacity and critical care capacity.
“It could take a few weeks,” he said, “but we will get right back to that exponential curve.”