Whatcom County is currently in Phase 1 of the Safe Start reopening plan. We are all working hard to slow the spread of COVID-19, and are looking forward to the next phase. We don’t yet know when Washington State as a whole may be able to move to Phase 2, and we know more information is forthcoming. Each county has the opportunity to apply to the Washington State Department of Health for a variance to move to Phase 2. In order to get to Phase 2, each county must show that they are prepared to meet current needs, as well as a potential surge of new cases.
Under the current Phase 2 criteria, we must have no more than 10 new cases per 100,000 county residents over the last 14 days. As we shared in yesterday’s News Flash, that means Whatcom County must have no more than 22 new cases over a 14-day period. As of May 25, we had 37 new cases in the past 14 days. We have work to do in this area, but if we all keep up our healthy habits, we can meet our goals.
What We’re Doing to Prepare
There are other requirements to move into Phase 2 that we at the health department are also taking action on. Here are some of our steps to meet the benchmarks that let us know we are prepared:
Training more people for case and contact investigations - Right now we have 21 trained full-time disease investigators who are able to do case investigations and contact tracing. In order to move to Phase 2, we will need to have 34 trained. We are working on training volunteers to be case investigators, and they should be ready to start in the next few weeks. If you would like to volunteer to be a contact investigator you can review the requirements and apply here.
Keeping tabs on how long it takes us to contact people who are sick and their close contacts - We are doing many case and contact interviews every day. In the past month, we have been able to interview 94% of cases (people with new positive COVID-19 results) within 24 hours. We have also been able to do contact tracing, or interviews of their contacts, within 48 hours for 70% of close contacts.
Bringing together healthcare providers to make sure that anyone who needs to can get tested - Now that PPE and testing supplies are more readily available, our testing capacity has been steadily increasing. Remember, if you have symptoms, contact your healthcare provider to ask about getting tested. On average, it has taken three days for a person in Whatcom County to get tested once they experience symptoms, and our goal is two days or less. If you don’t have a healthcare provider or health insurance, find out how to get covered, or call us to talk about how to get tested.
Housing and services for people in isolation or quarantine - Anyone who tests positive or has been exposed to the virus must isolate or quarantine in order to prevent further spread of COVID-19. People who need support to get food, healthcare, or medications to safely isolate or quarantine get help from our staff, who make sure they have their basic needs met or help them get connected to the isolation and quarantine facility if needed. Whatcom Unified Command has set up an isolation and quarantine facility for anyone who can’t safely do this at home. We are assessing whether or not we need additional spaces for isolation and quarantine.
Preparing to quickly respond to outbreaks - We currently have 16 trained staff who are able to perform outbreak investigations at places like long term care facilities or workplaces. Our outbreak response includes testing, contact tracing, and follow up with people who need to isolate or quarantine so that the outbreak can be controlled. We also conduct site assessments and consult with facilities to provide recommendations for enhanced safety practices.
Why Is This Important?
As we resume activities that bring us closer together again, it’s likely that we’ll see more cases. Being prepared to test, quickly follow up on new cases, and have people with COVID-19 can isolate themselves from others means we can limit the spread of the infection and avoid a large wave of more cases. Now that we’ve flattened the curve, we don’t want to lose what we’ve gained.
Moving to Phase 2 will take all of us working together, with every Whatcom County resident sharing some of the responsibility. Healthcare providers, essential workers, and the health department are doing a lot of work behind the scenes to make sure our health infrastructure is ready for Phase 2. We understand that this pandemic and the stay home order have been hard, on so many levels. We all want to get back to normal as soon as we can. And it will take all of us, working together, to get there.