Meet the Population Health Trust, Part two

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Now that Washington State has reopened and our vaccination numbers continue to climb, we will begin to see many changes here in Skagit County. For our businesses, schools, and community organizations, these changes are both exciting and (maybe) a bit overwhelming.

The Skagit Valley Family YMCA experienced the great highs and great lows of the pandemic. Its staff answered the call to action when COVID-19 drive-through testing was in dire need, and again when mass vaccinations began in Skagit County at the Fairgrounds. The YMCA itself closed, then opened partially; ebbing and flowing with the changing tides of the pandemic. Staff had to adapt, modify, and innovate on a dime in order to continue serving local individuals and families. Now that the economy is reopen, staff will once again need to evaluate what this change means for their organization.

To continue introducing Population Health Trust members, we thought that now would be a perfect time to highlight the CEO of the Skagit Valley YMCA, Dean Snider. Dean has been a member of the Trust since January of 2020, right before the pandemic hit. We asked him some questions about COVID, the Trust, and the joint mission of these two entities: Building a better and healthier community. Here is what Dean had to say.

Which agency or organization do you represent on the Trust?

I represent the Skagit Valley Family YMCA. Our Y has served the people of Skagit since 1911 with ‘Building Community’ as our Cause. We support vulnerable youth populations at Oasis and provide water safety education and swimming proficiency for countless youth. In addition, we support families with subsidized licensed and educational childcare throughout the county, and our Hoag Road and Bakerview facilities support healthy living across many programs.

What health topic are you most committed to improving for Skagitonians? 

I think the most important role of the Y is to protect and preserve health for the most vulnerable of our community’s populations. We engage Skagitonians from the earliest years of life to seniors. One of the greatest observed needs in our community, as we emerge from the pandemic, is for services supporting mental health. 

The Skagit Y is exploring how we might be able to step into this gap and offer these much-needed services. With the Oasis Teen Shelter as our launching pad, we hope to build a Y clinical mental health service that is additive to our current Skagit offerings and will begin by serving vulnerable youth. We are currently reaching out to key stakeholders in the community to seek guidance and more fully understand the need as we move forward with our preparations. We welcome all thoughts and feedback.

What have you/your agency been up to during COVID?

The pandemic hit our Y hard. The forced closureof our Hoag Road and Bakerview facilities resulted in about 75% loss in our membership; an understandable savings for families experiencing uncertain financial times. We are welcoming members back now as the restrictions have been lifted, and we are growing back our staff. We have, however, a long way to go toward recovery.

Dean Snider, CEO, Skagit Valley Family YMCA

During the pandemic and in partnership with Community Action, we used the Hoag facility to provide showers for homeless adults and, together with the Burlington Edison School District, provide school-age childcare for essential and emergency workers early in the pandemic.

Last fall, our school-age programs partnered with MVSD, B-ESD, and ASD to provide all-day classrooms and care and assistance in the virtual learning environment. We were able to add our sports program staff to provide much-needed physical activity for students early in 2021. I am proud of our childcare team, who endured this difficult year with courage and grace as they served families under these difficult circumstances. I am also proud that we were able to partner with Children of the Valley to support two additional classrooms housed at their site in Mount Vernon. Additionally, our Early Learning Centers remained open, focusing on essential workers altering class sizes, safety, and cleaning protocols to keep children and families safe.

At Oasis, we continued to serve vulnerable youth throughout the pandemic, which was only made possible through community and individual contributions to support our emergency shelter, outreach, and drop-in center. We continue to seek financial assisdtance as we protect these young people.

Why is the Population Health Trust important?

The impact of the collective is far greater than any single entity can accomplish on its own. The Trust is this collective in Skagit with entities and organizations committed togerther to build a better and healthier community. 

The Trust is essential, and we at the Y are honored to participate together with our Trust colleagues to impact our community. The mission of the Skagit Y is to create positive community change through relationships by empowering the mind, body, and spirit of ALL. Partnering with the Trust is in perfect alignment with this mission.

For more information about the Skagit Valley Family YMCA, visit their website or call (360) 336-9622.


Washington State to Reopen SOON!

Reading Time: 3 minutes

As of June 14th, more than 7,528,340 doses of vaccine have been given across the state and more than 4.1 million people have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine. Washington is getting closer to its 70% initiation goal set by Governor Inslee. The state currently sits at 67.8% of Washingtonians 16 and older who have initiated vaccination, meaning they have received at least one dose of the COVID vaccine.

June 30th or when we hit 70%.

The Governor has stated that Washington will fully reopen on June 30th, though the state could reopen sooner if the 70% initiation goal is met. To reopen before June 30th, at least 70% of people 16 and older need to receive at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine.

This is an extremely exciting time for many of us, as we begin to see things go back to normal. But with reopening comes great responsibility! It is important to remember as things open back up that we must proceed responsibly and with care and respect for those who are not yet vaccinated and for those who are at increased risk.

Reopening & what to expect:

What happens on June 30th or when we hit 70%?

The state will be open for business and recreation, and people who are vaccinated can go along with their regular lives for the most part. Unvaccinated people will need to continue wearing masks indoors. Most businesses get to operate as they did in January of 2020, with the caveat that they’re following workplace safety requirements (which come from Labor & Industries). Restaurants, bars, bowling alleys, and grocery stores are going to be fully open.

Are there any exceptions to reopening?

The one major public sector that will continue to have some limits is large-scale events that the governor just released guidance for. Events that are indoors with 10k or more people must be limited to 75% occupancy or require vaccination and follow mask requirements.

Higher risk congregant settings like healthcare, long term care facilities, or places where many people are not yet able to be vaccinated like childcare, day camps, K-12 must follow different guidance. In these settings, masking is still required, even among fully vaccinated persons.

Will unvaccinated people still need to wear a mask?

The Secretary of Health’s mask order remains in place, which means that unvaccinated people need to continue to mask in public. This helps protect not only those who are unvaccinated, but also vulnerable children who are not yet able to be vaccinated and others with auto-immune or other conditions that prevent them from being vaccinated.

Can businesses still require people to wear a mask after restrictions are lifted?

Yes, counties and businesses can be more strict and enforce masking, distancing and handwashing, etc. – whatever is appropriate in those spaces.

The situation in Skagit.

In Skagit County, 63.6% of our population 16 years and older have initiated vaccination. From data on the state dashboard, we can see that roughly 81% of our population 65+ have initiated and 64% of people 50-64 have initiated vaccination. The greatest room for growth would be amongst Skagitonians ages 12-49; the smallest percentage being those 12-17 years of age.

“We’re calling all our young adults and families with tweens and teens to get vaccinated now. It wouldn’t take much to get the state over the 70 percent threshold. We could see things reopen in the next few days if all eligible people would access their vaccine now.”

Jennifer Johnson, Skagit County Public Health Director

Getting your vaccine.

There continues to be many opportunities to get vaccinated against COVID-19 in Skagit County. Getting a vaccine is free, easy, and now—more convenient than ever!

The Skagit County Fairgrounds Clinic is still offering vaccines to anyone 12 and older, though the site closes permanently after June 26th to allow Public Health to focus on mobile outreach and pop-up clinics. To access a Pfizer or Johnson & Johnson vaccine at the Fairgrounds, drop by on Thursday from 1-7pm or Friday/Saturday from 10am-4pm.

A list of all upcoming mobile pop-up clinics can be found on Public Health’s website: www.skagitcounty.net/COVIDvaccine. All pop-ups are available to anyone 12+, unless indicated on the webpage. No appointments are required for these dates and locations.

If none of the above options suit your needs, other vaccine providers and locations can be found at Vaccinate WA or by calling the DOH help line at 1-800-525-0127.

For more information.

WA DOH: https://www.doh.wa.gov/Emergencies/COVID19/FrequentlyAskedQuestions

Governor’s Office: http://Governor’s Office: https://www.governor.wa.gov/issues/issues/covid-19-resources/covid-19-reopening-guidance

Percentages come from combining data from the Washington State Immunization Information System (IIS) and aggregate data from the Department of Defense (DoD) and Veterans Affairs (VA). To access state and county level vaccine data, go to the state Dashboard at: https://www.doh.wa.gov/Emergencies/COVID19/DataDashboard.


Are playgrounds re-opening? What you need to know.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

I was scrolling through my social media newsfeed on a recent Saturday morning, when a particular post caught my eye: Mount Vernon playgrounds have re-opened. As a mom of a toddler who has been shut out of all playgrounds and splash-pads this summer, I nearly jumped for joy. My first thought was, “FINALLY! Shoes on! Let’s go!” … But then reality set in. Is it too soon? Is it safe? All the anxieties of the past six months flooded my brain and I spent the rest of the morning debating about our next move.

After quickly scoping out our nearest park, I decided that we would give it a try. My daughter couldn’t put her shoes on fast enough when I told her we could go. Before I knew it, we were walking up to her favorite twisty slide, and she looked back at me with reservation in her eyes. It felt so alien to be at a playground again, and even weirder to encourage her to climb onto the steps.  

All in all, it was a wonderful morning. She had a blast! But I was glad that I’d talked to my daughter about my expectations before we went, and about how we had to continue to be careful about keeping our distance when around others. Here are some things that I took into account before we left the house that may be helpful for you and your family.

Talk to your child about keeping their distance

Even though playgrounds may be reopening, we should be trying our best to keep a six-foot distance from others, and this can be really hard to accomplish between children at a playground! Talk to your child before you leave the house about what your expectations are, and even practice what six feet looks like. Discuss some things that your child can say if another child is getting too close, and reassure them that you will be there to help them.

Note: While you may be able to control what your own child is doing, it may be difficult to make sure other children are keeping their distance. Stay close to your child and discuss any concerns that you may have with the parents/caregivers of the other children at the playground (if it becomes problematic). If it is too difficult to keep distance, be prepared to leave.

Go during “non-peak” hours

Go to the playground when it isn’t busy, and leave (or take a snack break and come back) if it gets crowded. Though the park was empty when we arrived in mid-morning, within several minutes we were greeted by two other families. I think if we went again, I’d make a point to go earlier (since it was a sunny Saturday, after all) or maybe even a bit later in the afternoon. Keeping your distance—as mentioned above—is much easier to achieve if the playground isn’t crowded.

Take the usual health precautions

This is nothing new, but it is important to keep in mind regardless! Adults and children must wear masks when at the playground (exception being children younger than two  years old and those with health exemptions), and sanitize your hands often. Bring some hand sanitizer with you to have in your pocket, and talk to your child about avoiding touching their eyes, nose, and mouth.

Be sure to follow the signs!

Some parks may not have opened their restroom facilities yet, so make alternate plans for going to the restroom. If the facilities are open, be sure to wear your mask and try to avoid congregating in big crowds. When you are using the restroom families, take the opportunity to wash everyone’s hands! Hand sanitizer is great, but nothing beats good, old-fashioned soap and water.

Weigh the pros and cons

I had to wrestle with the pros and cons of going back to the playground and even made a few false starts before we actually made it there that morning. Even though being outdoors lowers the risks of infection, there are absolutely some risks associated with crowding and contaminated surfaces. In the end, I trust the benefits to our mental health outweigh the potential risks. That being said, I made sure to follow instructions on all posted signage, and practiced safe distancing and proper hygiene throughout our trip. I also don’t know if we will continue to go if the parks begin to get crowded. I guess I’ll make that judgment call when and if the time comes.  

Take care of yourself, and take care of others. Oh, and don’t forget the sunscreen!


Visiting Loved Ones in Long-Term Care Facilities and Nursing Homes – Latest Guidelines

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Governor Inslee recently announced new visiting rules for long-term care facilities and nursing homes, which will give some families and friends increased access to see their loved ones. We know that people who live in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities are often older adults and people with chronic health conditions—the groups who are at highest risk of complications from COVID-19. Since people live together in close proximity in these facilities, COVID-19 can easily spread within these environments, so protections were put in place to safeguard residents from the disease.

The new visiting rules will include a four-phase plan that is different from the state’s four-phase Safe Start Plan for counties that you may have heard about. Nursing homes and long-term care facilities cannot be in a more advanced phase than the counties they are in (Skagit County is currently in phase 2). Facilities will also stay in phase 1 if the local COVID case rate per 100,000 residents exceeds 75, which Skagit County currently exceeds as of August 26.

The new rules took effect on August 12, and family members should check with the facility their loved one lives in, because not every site may be able to conduct visits right away. It may take some time for facilities to work through the application and approval process with Washington State.

What will visiting look like in the different phases?

Depending on the phase, visiting access will differ. As of the time of this article, Skagit County remains in phase 1 with a high risk level.

Long-Term Care Facilities in Phase 1:

  • Indoor visits are limited to compassionate care situations. Compassionate care situations include end-of-life circumstances and for psychosocial needs (ex. distress brought on by the death of a loved one or a sudden lifestyle change).
  • Outdoor visits are allowed and limited to two visitors per resident per visit. These visits must include masking, social distancing, and appropriate hygiene.
  • Facilities may invite “window visits” at their discretion with safety protocols in place.
  • Remote visitation through technology must be facilitated.

Additional Access for Long-Term Care Facilities in Phase 2:

  • Adds ability of a designated “essential support person” to visit a resident once per day if the resident is unable to participate in outdoor visits and if remote visitation technology is unavailable.

Additional Access for Long-Term Care Facilities in Phase 3:

  • Indoor visits are generally permitted, with limitations. Facilities will establish visitor hours, visitor limits, and safety precautions. Preference should be given to outdoor visits.

Additional Access for Long-Term Care Facilities in Phase 4:

  • Normal visitation resumes.
The graduated restart plan is based off of the Washington State Safe Start Model.

Families should also know that a facility or agency must meet certain criteria before entering a new phase, including a current 28-day period without a resident or staff member testing positive for COVID-19 and having at least a 14-day supply of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) stocked.

Questions or Need Help for a Loved One?

This can be a stressful time for family members and caregivers. Washington State has established a FamHelp Long-Term Care Phone Hotline at (888) 856-5691 that is open between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. to answer questions about long-term care and other DSHS facilities.


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


Skagit Business and COVID-19: EDASC Perspectives

Reading Time: 4 minutes

The Economic Development Alliance of Skagit County (EDASC) began the year of 2020 focused on its mission of strengthening local businesses and expanding our economy. EDASC was set to leverage Skagit’s great geographic and business-friendly location to attract industry and entrepreneurs to our beautiful area. While economic planning is a fine art, no financial crystal ball anticipated a sudden and global blow to businesses. Of course, COVID-19 changed everything within a matter of weeks.

The Skagit economy is facing the chaos and alarm that seems to be everywhere. But who has a better finger on the local pulse than EDASC, even in the middle of COVID-19? So – in what is our new normal – EDASC CEO John Sternlicht and Communications Manager Aaron Weinberg joined me for a conversation through video-conferencing.

Resilience

Times are bad, without a doubt. But Skagit has always been resilient. Part of that is the nature of our people. Aaron also sees resilience in Skagit’s diverse economy. “When there is diverse business and industry, there is more resiliency and a greater ability to recover.” He added, “We have a range of prosperous industries including manufacturing, health care, maritime, informational technology, construction, retail, tourism and agriculture. This diversity will help us as we move forward.” In the meantime, businesses will need some help and solid advice.

EDASC and COVID-19 Resources

John and Aaron are frank about our current financial predicament. Workers and businesses have both been hit and hit hard. So, EDASC is doing what they can to give businesses access to the relief that is available. John described how opportunities like the federal Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) and Paycheck Protection Plan (PPP) have complex application processes that can be daunting. “We make the application process understandable, especially to smaller businesses with limited resources. We do the research and extra support. We don’t just send out links.” You can contact EDASC by checking out its website at https://www.skagit.org/.

Going the extra mile is obvious when viewing EDASC’s COVID-19 Resource Guide at https://www.skagit.org/covid-19-resources-for-businesses-employees. Some of these resources will be key to local businesses and their workers. For others, the assistance may not be enough. Sadly, some businesses will not make it through the pandemic. John noted other businesses “were in a position to able to pivot to manufacturing PPE. Also, local distilleries switched to making sanitizers.” There is always innovation during times of upheaval. Opportunities will appear for entrepreneurs despite the tough times ahead. Aaron describes that to support businesses, EDASC “is constantly getting crucial information out to businesses, with our website and newsletter being up to the minute.” In a time of disruption, having EDASC as a trusted information source to our business community is critical.

Re-opening

Skagitonians are waiting for the day that businesses re-open and jobs are restored. We long for a sense of normalcy by heading out to a few shops or sitting down to a good dinner at a restaurant. But to keep ourselves, neighbors and the most vulnerable members of our community safe, businesses need to plan now for the day that reopening arrives. Planning includes how to resume operations while maximizing the safety of customers and employees. This means assuring at least 6 feet of distance, face coverings for staff to wear for as long as it is recommended, providing places for handwashing or hand sanitizing for both employees and customers, and ensuring no one comes to work sick. John underscored the need for wearing face coverings. “When we wear a mask, it’s not so much for protecting ourselves but protecting others. It’s a main way to stop the spread of COVID.”

Businesses need to create an environment in which both workers and customers take necessary precautions.  Some businesses will struggle if their facilities make it difficult to create 6 feet of space between people. On the other hand, some organizations can get work done through telecommuting, and may continue this effective physical distancing practice. Fortunately, EDASC is offering guidance on re-opening. Small Business COVID-19 Prevention Best Practices for Businessesoffers information and further resources.

Another resource is Skagit County Public Health. In this time of COVID-19, Public Health is focused on helping businesses be successful in re-opening. The department provides guidance and support so workers and customers can be safe, and re-opening successful. Everyone has a stake in this response – owners, workers and customers. If all of us strive to take care of each other, transmission can be minimized and we can advance through the phases of the Governor’s Safe Start Washington. If we fall into reckless habits, COVID-19 can take hold again. This would be tragic to those who suffer infection and greatly undermine our economy. Check Public Health’s coronavirus webpage for business guidance as well as a vast range of information and resources regarding COVID-19: https://www.skagitcounty.net/Departments/HealthDiseases/coronavirus.htm.

Recovery

EDASC will be a leader in the Skagit County Economic Recovery Strategic Plan, collaborating with a wide range of stakeholders. John notes, “Recovery is not yet in its early stages. It will require multistep planning with multiple phases. Recovery needs to be strategic – very well planned and thought out. This won’t be months – it will be years in the making in order to be successful.” The length of time should not be a negative. It shows we are in a marathon, not a sprint, but with the goal of recovery at the finish regardless.

Hope

The COVID-19 pandemic will come to a close after the historically mammoth scale of producing worldwide levels of immunization. This effort will be an economic driver in itself. But what will happen in Skagit then?

John has “hope that we will learn that political boundaries are meaningless to a virus or climate change. There is no separate city, county or country when it comes to COVID-19 or our impact on the planet. And addressing both are part of a job-creating economy.”

As Aaron described above, the ranging diversity of our economy provides Skagit with the resiliency necessary to recovery. This diversity gives us the foundation to bounce back in the future.

Things are dire for us – and it’s not right to be cheerily optimistic when so many are suffering. But Skagit is fortunate to have leaders who cautiously point out that, at the end of the tunnel, there is light.

Here are some more resources for businesses: