Your Choices Matter: Gather Safe, Gather Small This Labor Day

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Over the last two weeks, we have seen a reduction in the number of new cases each day in Skagit County and throughout Washington State—and that’s great! But context matters. With Labor Day coming up, Public Health is concerned that we could see another spike in cases related to social and family gatherings. About ten days after every major holiday since the start of the pandemic, we have seen a fairly significant spike in cases, mostly related to gatherings. Unless folks continue to make good choices, we expect Labor Day will be no exception.

So, what can you do over Labor Day weekend to ensure that cases don’t increase in the following weeks?

Just think: Gather safe, gather small.

What is “Gather small”?

Gathering small means gathering with no more than five people you don’t live with in any given week. Skagit County is in Phase 2 of the Safe Start—Reopening Washington plan, under which you are not allowed to gather with more than five people you don’t live with each week. This means that if you have dinner with four people on Friday night (or any weeknight leading up to Labor Day), you can only see one additional person throughout Labor Day weekend.

Gather small

What is “Gather safe?

We’d all like there to be a silver bullet, but gathering safe means following Public Health and Washington State Department of Health guidelines for mask wearing, social distancing and hand hygiene. As a reminder:

  • Masks should be worn any time you’re in the company of someone you don’t live with. This includes outdoor activities, private social gatherings, and indoor interactions. Masks reduce the likelihood of transmission by up to 70 percent. If you’re going to gather at all, wear a mask.
  • Host gatherings outside and keep six feet apart from anyone you don’t live with. COVID-19 travels when a person coughs, talks, sneezes, sings, etc. Staying six feet apart reduces the likelihood that someone’s infected particles will get into your system and vice versa.
  • Wash or sanitize your hands frequently. Have a hand sanitizer setup that people can easily access.
  • Ideally, plan your gathering without food at all. Consumption of food requires removing your mask, and once the masks come off, it’s hard to get people to put it back on. If you want to have food, don’t share. At all. Labor Day and other upcoming holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas are times where we would typically share a meal with our loved ones and friends, but it is safest to not share communal food or drinks right now. Have folks bring their own food and drink or prepare separate plates for everyone—no shared potlucks during the pandemic.
  • Make a plan ahead of time and talk about boundaries. Set out chairs and/or tables with proper distance prior to arrival. Talk about keeping masks on and maintaining six feet of distance before you commit to the gathering. Let guests know they should not come inside to help with any food prep and what will happen if they need to use the restroom.
  • Assess your personal risk and comfort and show compassion for others who may need to set firmer boundaries.
  • Also, don’t attend if you feel any ill at all. It’s not worth the risk.
Gather safe

We all want cases to continue trending downward. Looking toward the fall flu season, some school districts going back to in-person session, and everyone spending more time indoors and in enclosed spaces, it’s vital that we get the virus under control—now. Please, make good choices this holiday weekend and gather safe, gather small. Every one of us has a chance to make a difference.


Phase 3 Progress

Reading Time: 5 minutes

June 27, 2020

Please note: Phases of the Roadmap to Recovery have since changed! For updated information, go to: https://coronavirus.wa.gov/what-you-need-know/roadmap-recovery-metrics.

It’s been three weeks since Skagit County moved to Phase 2 of the governor’s Safe Start plan. Three weeks is the minimum amount of time a county has to wait before applying for the next phase. During this time, the county has to meet several metrics—the most important of which is positive case numbers—showing that it has the COVID-19 outbreak under control. Friday, the Skagit County Board of Health met with Skagit County Public Health and decided not to apply to move forward to Phase 3, because the County does not meet all the metrics.

“Of course, this is disappointing,” Public Health Director Jennifer Johnson said in a press release. “But unfortunately, we’ve seen an uptick in positive cases over the past several weeks that have prevented us from being able to move forward, per the Safe Start—Reopening Washington plan.”

In this post, we’ll take a look at the metrics the state is using and see how Skagit County measures up.

METRIC: Fewer than 25 positive cases per 100,000 people (32 Skagitonians) in the last 14 days

In order to meet this metric, Skagit County would need to see no more than 32 positive cases over the last 14 days. We’ve had 36 positive cases over the last two weeks. While we recently saw a decrease in cases, which helped get us to Phase 2 of the governor’s Safe Start plan, since then we’ve experienced a disturbing increase in the rate of positive cases.

Right now, most of our current cases are linked to extended family gatherings and celebrations, people traveling to visit family or friends both in and out of state, and we continue to see workplace transmission from worksites within Skagit County and adjoining counties. For many weeks now, most people becoming infected are of working age, born between 1970 and 2000. Positive cases usually show up about two to three weeks after exposure, and you can see the increase in cases three weeks after Memorial Day, indicating that people gathered against state and local health guidance.

“We have primarily seen cases tied to unauthorized gatherings, travel outside of the immediate community and workplaces,” said Dr. Leibrand. “It’s disappointing to see so many cases tied to activities not authorized under Phase 2. We hope the community will view this as a wakeup call and start taking the guidance more seriously.”

Below is a graph showing our County case data based on the numbers you can find on the Skagit County website. These numbers differ slightly from the state data, as Skagit County bases its case data on when the positive test result comes in, and the State bases its data on when the positive test was collected. The state also has a 6-day lag time to ensure it has all positive test results in before it publicizes its data. The state is using its own data when determining whether a county has met the metrics to move forward. While the data may differ slightly, the story told is the same: Our cases continue to rise faster than we’d like. The state shows that we have a positive rate of 27.1 cases per 100,000 Skagit County residents. Public Health expects this number to rise to 29.4 percent by June 29th and 30th, due to the six-day delay in the state data.

Skagit County COVID-19 positive case data.
Data as of June 26, 2020

Is Skagit County meeting the metric? NO

What can you do to help the County meet this metric? Minimize your risk of infection so you (and your close contacts!) don’t add to the case count. It’s not fun, but the best thing you can do is continue to stay home as much as possible. If you do go out, there are ways you can protect yourself:

  • Wear a mask (now required whenever you’re in indoors in public or if you’re outdoors in public and can’t maintain six feet of physical distancing)
  • Stay as far away from non-household members as possible (six feet minimum)
  • Wash your hands or use hand sanitizer often
  • Don’t touch your face
  • Limit the number of non-household members you come into close contact with to five or fewer per week. Any single gathering of more than five people (who don’t all live together) are prohibited during Phase 2.
  • Stay home if you’re feeling unwell, even just a little unwell, except to get tested. The drive-thru testing site in the Skagit Valley College parking lot is open Monday-Friday, 9am-4pm. Please bring your insurance card or the information from your card (plan name, group number, and individual identification number). With this information, insurance covers the cost of the test with no co-pay from you. If you don’t have insurance, the state will cover the cost.

METRIC: COVID-19 hospitalizations is flat or decreasing

Skagit County has been seeing a relatively flat hospitalization rate, between zero and three people hospitalized at any given time over the last few weeks.

Is Skagit County meeting the metric? YES

METRIC: Health care system readiness

The state defines health care system readiness as having less than 80% of the licensed beds full, and less than 10% of licensed beds occupied by suspected and confirmed COVID-19 cases. According to the state’s Risk Assessment Dashboard, 75.7% of Skagit County’s hospital beds are occupied, and only 0.6% of them are occupied by COVID-19 patients.

Is Skagit County meeting the metric? YES

METRIC: Average number of tests performed per day during the past week is 50 times the number of positive cases (maximum of 2% positive test rate)

According to the state’s Risk Assessment Dashboard, Skagit County is testing 56.8 people per positive case reported, a positive rate of 1.8%. It’s important that the county continues to test a lot of people to keep the ratio of positive test results low. Also, testing is the only way to find asymptomatic or presymptomatic people and have them isolate in order to stop them from spreading the virus to others in the community.

Is Skagit County meeting the metric? YES

METRIC: 90% of cases reached by phone or in person within 24 hours of a positive lab report

Skagit County Public Health contact tracers attempt to contact 100% of all positive cases within 24 hours of their notification of the case. Last week, they were able to successfully reach every single positive case within this time frame.

Is Skagit County meeting the metric? YES

METRIC: 80% of contacts reached by phone or in person within 48 hours of receipt of a positive test report on a case

Skagit County Public Health contact tracers attempt to contact 100% of close contacts of positive cases within 48 hours of notification of the case. Last week, they were able to successfully reach 92% of close contacts within this time frame.

Is Skagit County meeting the metric? YES

METRIC: 80% of cases are contacted daily during their isolation period

Is Skagit County meeting the metric? YES

METRIC: 80% of contacts are contacted daily during their quarantine period

Is Skagit County meeting the metric? YES

METRIC: Maximum of one outbreak (defined as two or more non-household cases epidemiologically linked within 14 days in a workplace, congregate living or institutional setting) per week

In June, Skagit County Public Health has investigated about one outbreak per week among employees at workplaces.

Is Skagit County meeting the metric? YES

Determining whether it’s safe to reopen is not something Skagit County leadership takes lightly. We’re all eager to open back up fully and return to some sense of normalcy. Skagit County is meeting most metrics—our healthcare system is prepared, our contact tracing team is absolutely incredible—but our case counts are too high for us to proceed.

“We want to reopen, but as the metrics show us, it’s just not safe right now,” said Board of Health Chair Commissioner Ron Wesen. “My colleagues and I will continue to watch the metrics closely, and consult with Public Health. As soon as we are able to do so safely, we will apply to move forward.”

It’s up to all Skagit County residents to do their part to help the county reach Phase 3. We need everyone to practice social distancing and good hand washing; we need everyone who is medically able to wear a mask, even if you find them uncomfortable (we all do!); we need everyone to limit their contact with people they don’t live with. This isn’t easy for anyone. But the more consistent we all are, the sooner we’ll be able to move on. Help us get there.


Announcing Phase 2 in Skagit County

Skagit Moves into Phase 2

Reading Time: 3 minutes

You may have heard that Washington State has launched the “Safe Start” phased plan in addressing COVID-19. Under this approach, counties may apply to the Washington State Secretary of Health to allow additional activity in their communities. On June 5, Skagit County was approved to move to Phase 2 of Governor Inslee’s Safe Start plan.

How Did Skagit County Qualify to Move to Phase 2?

The Safe Start plan sets targets that counties much reach before moving to the next phase. The plan includes targets for COVID-19 activity, hospital readiness, testing, case and contact investigation, and protecting high-risk people. For example, over the two weeks prior to our application, Skagit County had 10 COVID cases per 100,000 people, which is well beneath the target of 25 per 100,000. Skagit County was also able to show that it had enough hospital beds available, and met contact and case investigations targets. Testing capacity also is available; Skagit County tests an average of 191 people per day with the ability to increase the number of tests if demand increases. 

What Changes Will Occur in Phase 2?

Some additional businesses and services will be able to open, and some small, infrequent gatherings can happen. Examples of Phase 2 expansions include:

  • In person retailers who are able to use physical distancing can open.
  • Personal services, like hairstylists, who are able to use physical distancing and protective measures can open.
  • Manufacturing businesses and office-based businesses can open, using physical distancing and telework when possible.
  • Small gatherings of five or fewer people from outside one’s immediate household are allowed, once per week.

Governor Inslee also changed guidance to allow for outdoor religious gatherings of up to 100 people, and in Phase 2. Religious gatherings indoors with 25 percent capacity or no more than 50 people, whichever is fewer. You are legally able to participate in these activities, but Skagit Public Health has concerns about the health risks involved in any large group gatherings. As we learned from the Skagit Chorale Outbreak study, COVID-19 is highly contagious and spreads quickly through large groups. So, remote or web-based events or services are safer. If larger groups gather for services, it is vital that people practice good physical distancing and that everyone wears a mask. Additionally, high-risk people should continue to stay home.

Staying home is the safest thing you can do right now, but that is not possible for everyone. As Phase 2 starts, people should think through their personal risk factors, and use all recommended practices to limit the spread of COVID-19. These practices include:

  • Everyone who is medically able to should wear masks in public.
  • Large-scale summer events should still be canceled. Skagit County Public Health will continue to evaluate events as summer progresses.
  • Physical distancing of at least six feet should still be used.
  • People at higher risk of severe illness should stay home and away from large groups.
  • Employees are still encouraged to telecommute if possible.
Safe Start Reminders
https://coronavirus.wa.gov/sites/default/files/2020-05/Safe-Start-Infographic_05-29-2020_HORIZ_0.jpg

People in high-risk populations are strongly encouraged to limit their participation in Phase 2 activities and business services. High-risk populations are currently defined by the CDC as:

  • People 65 years and older
  • People who live in a nursing home or long-term care facility
  • People of all ages with underlying medical conditions, particularly if not well controlled, including:
    • People with chronic lung disease or moderate to severe asthma
    • People who have serious heart conditions
    • People who are immunocompromised
    • People with severe obesity (body mass index [BMI] of 40 or higher)
    • People with diabetes
    • People with chronic kidney disease undergoing dialysis
    • People with liver disease

One other important change is that beginning June 8, all employees must wear a cloth facial covering, unless they working alone in an office, vehicle, job site, or when the job has no in-person interaction.  Employers must provide their workers with appropriate masks for their job duties.

What Happens After Phase 2?

If Skagit County continues to meet the Safe Start Plan targets, we can move to Phase 3 in as soon as three weeks after qualifying for Phase 2. However, if the virus is spreading rapidly, a county may need to return to an earlier phase until the virus is more under control. That is why all Skagitonians should take precautions to limit their contact with people outside their households, wear masks in public, and maintain good social distancing. 

For More Information

Governor Inslee’s Safe Start Website:  https://coronavirus.wa.gov/what-you-need-know/safe-start