‘We are now in the second wave’: Sharp COVID-19 increase foils Wenatchee Valley’s hopes to reopen

Dr. Malcolm Butler addresses the Chelan-Douglas Board of Health in a remote meeting Thursday.

EAST WENATCHEE — Climbing coronavirus numbers in Chelan and Douglas counties mean the region is ineligible to move to Phase 2 of Washington’s Safe Start plan, which would enable more businesses and gathering places to operate during the pandemic, local health leaders said today.

With local cases reaching 621 and more patients on ventilators in Central Washington Hospital than there were at the onset of the COVID-19 public health emergency, the two counties will remain in the “modified” Phase 1 where they’ve stood since June 10.

“We are now in the second wave,” Chelan-Douglas Health District chief health officer Dr. Malcolm Butler told the Chelan-Douglas Board of Health this afternoon. “It is now here.”

The health board guides the joint Chelan-Douglas Health District, and its members have long pushed measures for reopening the economy. The Safe Start protocol, created by executive orders of Gov. Jay Inslee, requires in part that a county or joined region show no more than 25 new cases per 100,000 people in its population over the most recent 14-day period. The Chelan-Douglas rate of new cases is now 126 per 100,000.

Butler said local numbers previously reached as high as 50 per 100,000, then bottomed out around 25 as the county won its modified Phase 1 status, but have since veered back upward.

“We are now five times above what the state would like to see, and going in the wrong direction,” Butler said.

Confluence Health, the region’s largest private health agency and operator of Central Washington Hospital, has readied a contingency plan to shutter its non-emergency services if COVID-19 cases continue to grow.

Among other concerns, Confluence Health CEO Dr. Peter Rutherford told the board, climbing case rates and more hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients — albeit many of them transferred from outside the two-county area — mean Central Washington Hospital’s resources could be strapped if the trend continues.

“… We as a healthcare entity really cannot handle much more COVID activity in our hospital at this point, without limiting other non-emergent medical care services,” Rutherford said.

Because Confluence Health’s hospital and clinics serve patients in Chelan, Douglas, Grant and Okanogan counties, Rutherford said, medical workers must plan around all four counties’ coronavirus spread, not just that within the two-county Chelan-Douglas Health District.

An ongoing outbreak at a large packing facility in East Wenatchee has contributed to recent new COVID-19 numbers, Butler said, with 42 cases confirmed there. More than 125 people underwent testing today through Columbia Valley Community Health, where Butler is chief medical officer.

Douglas County Commissioner Dan Sutton, a health board member who’s headed a workgroup on reopening, said medical professionals in the group argued that submitting a new application at this point “wouldn’t be acceptable to the state, and may even damage our credibility.”

But the district stands ready to make application to the Washington Department of Health as soon as local numbers become favorable.

“We are prepared to submit for the next phase literally within 24 hours of hitting acceptable metrics,” Sutton said. “Now, the key word is ‘acceptable.'”

The workgroup identified a new case rate of 75 per 100,000, with evidence of decline, as the point where a Phase 2 application might be feasible, Butler said. “If it is somewhere around 75 and increasing, then we would want to hold.”

COVID-19 stems from a highly contagious airborne coronavirus that’s infected at least 33,435 people in Washington and killed 1,339. But it’s also spread easily by patients who do not show symptoms, which include fever, dry cough and fatigue. Those who test positive for the virus are subject to 14-day minimum quarantine.

Health experts have recommended keeping a minimal distance of 6 feet from others in public, wearing a facial mask to prevent the spread of airborne droplets, and frequent handwashing to minimize contagion.

The dangers of a COVID-19 surge don’t stop at local hospitals. Chelan County Public Utility District general manager Steve Wright warned PUD services could be jeopardized if the outbreak strikes its facilities.

“I think it’s a bit of a longshot, but I have to say, I do worry about utility reliability,” Wright said. “If we were to lose a core group of people in a certain number of jobs at the PUD, we would have a difficult time maintaining electric system reliability, water and wastewater, and fiber as well.”

The two-county health district says there were 621 cases in the Wenatchee Valley as of this morning. Nine people in the two counties have died from the virus.

For perspective, that’s more than the African nation of Zimbabwe, with a population of 14 million, where 617 cases have been confirmed and seven people are known to have died.

Health district numbers show the largest spread in the Valley is among people under 40 years old, and the virus continues to disproportionately affect the Hispanic community: They make up about a third of the total population, but represent 77 percent of coronavirus cases.

As the local meeting was underway Thursday, Gov. Jay Inslee announced he’ll require Washington businesses to enforce the use of protective facial masks among customers visiting their premises. Sutton repeated recent calls for local residents to comply with mask recommendations and requirements.

“It is the tool that we have at our disposal at this point in time to help control this infection rate,” he said.