Clark County to apply for move to Phase 3 of reopening

The application will likely be filed Friday, three weeks after the county was approved to move to Phase 2

CLARK COUNTY — Despite rising rates of COVID-19 throughout Washington state and much of the country, Clark County officials are hoping they can move to Phase 3 of the governor’s four-phased reopening plan as soon as next week.

This graphic lists the various activities allowed under each of the four phases in Gov. Jay Inslee’s Safe Start plan to reopen Washington state. Image courtesy Washington Department of Health
This graphic lists the various activities allowed under each of the four phases in Gov. Jay Inslee’s Safe Start plan to reopen Washington state. Image courtesy Washington Department of Health

Today, the Clark County Board of Public Health and County Council voted to approve the application for Phase 3, which will likely be sent to Secretary of Health John Wiesman as soon as this Friday, which is three weeks since the county was approved for Phase 2.

Despite an increase in new cases recently, the county remains below the threshold to qualify, said Dr. Alan Melnick, the county’s public health officer and health department director.

“I think that reflects that we were able to control the outbreaks that we had,” Melnick told the board. “We didn’t see a spread of those outbreaks out into the broader community and community spread.”

As of Wednesday, the county has seen 732 confirmed cases, including 29 fatalities blamed on COVID-19. The state metric allows for up to 25 new cases per 100,000 residents in the past 14 days. 

The county calculates that figure starting from six days ago, to allow for changes in more recent data. As of June 20, the county had a rate of 18.4 cases per 100,000 residents. 

Hospitalizations have increased since June 15, but Melnick noted that PeaceHealth is now transferring COVID patients from their St. John’s hospital in Cowlitz County to its Southwest Medical Center in Vancouver, so it’s hard to get an exact count on how many Clark County residents are hospitalized with confirmed cases.

As of Wednesday, there are 13 confirmed cases in Clark County hospitals, a number that has remained largely steady since the decision by PeaceHealth earlier this month.

Even with the additional patients, Melnick says the county has 34 percent of its hospital beds still empty, well below the 80 percent threshold set by the state.

Testing rates have also improved. The state requires at least 50 tests per confirmed case each week. The week of June 13 there were 3,159 tests done in Clark County, which is more than 1,100 above what the state requires.

Testing positivity rates should be below 2 percent in order to qualify, Melnick noted. Clark County’s rate was 1.27 percent in the most recent week available.

The two areas where Melnick may have some convincing to do are in case investigations, and contact tracing. 

Melnick noted that there had been some issues ironing out differences in reporting systems between his department and The Public Health Institute, which is providing contact notifiers under contract with the county.

“But we’re at the point with them that we have achieved universal active monitoring,” said Melnick. “That means calling cases and contacts every day.”

The state requires new cases to be contacted within 24 hours, with their close contacts notified within 48 hours after that. Melnick said he believes they will have the capacity to do that consistently by the end of this week or early next week.

If the application to Phase 3 is approved, it would allow for more businesses to reopen. Restaurants could hold up to 75 percent of dine-in capacity. Larger gatherings of up to 50 people are allowed. Gyms, public pools, and movie theaters would also be able to open at up to half capacity. Libraries, museums, and other government buildings would also be allowed to reopen.

As of Friday, masks are being made mandatory statewide for any gathering inside, and for all businesses.

Acknowledging the controversy behind that, Councilor Gary Medvigy said he’s hopeful that people will follow the governor’s request.

“We want to get (phase) three approved and we want to get to four as quickly as possible,” Medvigy said. “So these rules about wearing masks in public places of business, and other public places are important to voluntarily comply with, for the good of your neighbor and for the good of all who are vulnerable.”

Clark County Public Health wants to make it clear that this is just an approval to send the Phase 3 variance application. For now, the county remains in Phase 2, and businesses should operate within those guidelines until informed otherwise.