Clark County makes its case for Phase 2

Answers from the state could come as soon as this week

CLARK COUNTY — As requested, Clark County Public Health submitted a new application with Secretary of Health John Wiesman on Tuesday for a variance to move the county to Phase 2 of the governor’s Safe Start reopening plan.

Phase 2 would allow restaurants to reopen to dine-in customers at half capacity, with table size limits, along with salons and hair stylists, photographers, and other industries. It would also permit gatherings of up to five people per week outside of your immediate household.

Clark County Public Health Officer Dr. Alan Melnick during a May Board of Health meeting. Photo courtesy CVTV
Clark County Public Health Officer Dr. Alan Melnick during a May Board of Health meeting. Photo courtesy CVTV

Clark County initially submitted a Phase 2 application on May 22, before learning the full scope of a COVID-19 outbreak at Firestone Pacific Foods in Vancouver. To date, that outbreak has led to 132 confirmed cases, including 79 employees and 53 close contacts. All but seven of those live in Clark County.

At Wednesday’s Board of Public Health meeting, Dr. Alan Melnick, the county’s public health officer and health director, said the Firestone outbreak had accounted for all but 35 of the county’s new cases since May 16 when the first case at the fruit packing plant was confirmed.

Melnick also noted in the new application that 22 of the employees who tested positive at Firestone as of June 1 had shown no symptoms when the testing was done.

“So those are cases we would not have even discovered if we hadn’t done universal testing of everybody,” Melnick told the Board.

To date, 173 employees and 154 of their close contacts have been tested, due to a partnership with The Vancouver Clinic. 

Under new guidelines that took effect on Monday, the state is allowing counties to move into Phase 2 if they have had fewer than 25 new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents in the past 14 days. 

Melnick noted that Clark County’s rate would have been just over 7 per 100,000 without the Firestone outbreak. Including those numbers pushes the total to around 32 cases per 100,000.

On Wednesday, six more COVID-19 cases were confirmed, bringing the total in Clark County to 566. Four of those were not linked to the Firestone outbreak. The total number of deaths blamed on the virus remains at 25, with the last fatality due to COVID-19 in Clark County coming on May 15.

As of June 1, hospitals in Clark County had 373 occupied beds, accounting for 57 percent of their total capacity. Only 17 confirmed or suspected COVID-19 patients were in either Legacy Salmon Creek or PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center, accounting for only three percent of total capacity.

That falls well within the state’s requirement that hospitals in a county have at least 20 percent capacity remaining, and no more than 10 percent of beds occupied by a COVID-19 patient.

“This shows that our hospitalizations were flat or decreasing,” said Melnick. “The hospitalizations are not increasing, related to COVID-19.”

As of Wednesday, there were five COVID-positive patients at Clark County hospitals.

Melnick also noted that testing capacity has continued to increase. Over the past week, an average of 348 tests were being performed per day. 

Before the Firestone outbreak, the county was seeing around 1.4 percent of tests come back positive for COVID-19, which is within the state’s Phase 2 metric of no more than two percent. That number jumps to 3.24 percent following the Firestone outbreak, but Melnick said it has been dropping again in the past week.

“We’re at the end of the 14-day period since the plant was closed,” Melnick noted. “Twice a day we’re providing names of Firestone employees who are cleared, either from isolation or quarantine, to go back to work.”

The county is working with The Public Health Institute to bring in case notification teams, Melnick said, to more quickly reach out to close contacts of confirmed cases. The goal is to be able to do contact notification no later than two days after someone has started to experience symptoms and tests positive.

According to the state, Clark County should have 74 people involved in case investigation and contact tracing (15 per 100,000 residents). Between existing public health employees and those brought in by The Public Health Institute, Melnick says the county has 49 people ready to investigate cases and check in with close contacts. Another 22 people could be ready within the next four weeks.

Melnick, who spoke with Wiesman on Tuesday evening, said the secretary didn’t give him a firm timeline for when a decision could be reached, but hoped it would be sometime before the end of the week.

Councilor Julie Olson took the chance during Wednesday’s meeting to point out that Wiesman had been asked about the protests in Seattle, which drew thousands of people in recent days, and had deemed the gatherings acceptable, so long as people were wearing masks.

“The challenge is going to be how we make sense of this,” said Olson. “If the state health officer says we’re going to look away from 2,000 people on the street with masks on, that’s okay. But we’re not going to look away from a restaurant who might have 20 people inside.”

Earlier this week, the members of the City Council in Woodland voted 4-3 in favor of a resolution declaring themselves a sanctuary city from the governor’s stay-at-home order, as well as the phased-in approach to reopening. The council’s action essentially shields businesses in the city from local action if they decide to open in defiance of the governor’s order, but the state could still choose to fine them, or take away their business license.

The board said they had received a flood of public comment prior to the meeting, with many people expressing frustration over the lack of movement towards reopening.

“Everybody seems to have a critical view of what’s happening. There’s frustration out there,” acknowledged Olson. “I want the community to know that we’re doing everything that we can to get to phase two.”