Clark County Public Health addresses concerns the state could force county back into Phase 1 over the latest coronavirus outbreak
CLARK COUNTY — News that Clark County’s long-awaiting request to move into Phase 2 of the governor’s Safe Start Washington reopening plan came as a bit of a surprise for many on Friday. Especially considering it came on the heels of yet another COVID-19 outbreak investigation, this time at a Ridgefield custom cabinet maker.
As of Friday, the county has confirmed five employees at Pacific Crest Building Supply on S. 11th Street in Ridgefield had tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
Plans are already underway to test all of the 130 or so employees who work at the company’s 180-thousand-square-foot production facility.
The business was closed on Thursday, and employees who’ve tested positive are self-isolating according to Dr. Alan Melnick, Clark County’s health officer and Public Health director.
“These numbers will change as the investigation goes on,” Melnick said Friday during a press availability on Zoom. “We’re testing everybody, there’s a chance we’ll find more cases, but we are staffed and prepared to investigate any cases that come in.”
Asked if the Pacific Crest outbreak might potentially jeopardize the county’s Phase 2 status, Melnick said he had made sure Washington Secretary of Health John Wiesman was aware of the investigation on Thursday.
“And it obviously did not affect our ability to get the Phase 2 application accepted,” said Melnick.
On Friday, the county announced three new cases of COVID-19, all of whom were connected to Pacific Crest Building Supply. Those new cases were included in the five reported on Thursday, according to the Public Health Department.
Also on Friday, the county announced two more fatalities linked to the outbreak, the first deaths since May 15. One was a man in his 80s, and the other a man in his 30s.
Melnick said he didn’t want to release details about the younger man who died, out of concern for his privacy. It marks the first death of someone under the age of 40 due to COVID-19 in Clark County.
Of the 27 fatalities, all but two have been in people over the age of 60.
As of Friday, there was only one person hospitalized with a confirmed COVID-19 case in Clark County, accounting for just 1.7 percent of available capacity.
Overall, 64 percent of licensed hospital beds in Clark County are filled, well below the 80 percent threshold set by the state.
According to the state Department of Health’s new COVID-19 risk assessment dashboard, Clark County meets two of the five metrics for Phase 2 reopening.
However, Melnick said Wiesman determined the county had ramped up contact notification and case investigation capabilities enough to quickly respond to additional outbreaks.
Clark County has contracted with The Public Health Institute, which is able to bring in trained contact notification teams more rapidly than the county could do on its own. Melnick says they expect to have 74 people available to investigate new cases and notify close contacts by the middle of the month.
Under the governor’s guidelines, Clark County would not be able to apply for a move to Phase 3 until June 26, which is three weeks after the move to Phase 2.
Asked if he might consider pressing for a more rapid move up, Melnick said he was just thrilled to finally be in Phase 2.
“That’s still sinking in,” he added. “We’re going to be continuing to monitor data and if there’s a possibility and I think it’s safe enough, we would ask to do that.”
Melnick said it wasn’t made clear all of the elements that went into Wiesman’s decision to approve the Phase 2 variance, but the growing unrest may have had something to do with.
“One of my arguments for the secretary is that the longer this goes on and we’re not progressing, the more people are going to defy that,” said Melnick. “And maybe even, you know, willfully not practice physical distancing.”
Melnick added that it will be interesting to watch the data over the next week or two, with thousands of people gathering to protest the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The black man died while being arrested by police, sparking more than a week of protests and violence across the country.
Even before that, though, Melnick noted that people have been gathering in defiance of the governor’s orders, including a car cruise in downtown Vancouver and, more recently, in Battle Ground.
“And the longer this goes on, the more antsy people are going to get,” said Melnick. “You’ve seen all the pictures of people, for example, on the trails, or at the beaches and all that. So we’ve seen a lot of situations where people are not physically distancing from each other.”
Friday marked the second straight day the county had seen no new COVID-19 cases linked to the outbreak at Firestone Pacific Foods. A total of 79 employees at the frozen fruit packing facility have tested positive, along with 53 close contacts. Many of those employees have since cleared their quarantine period, and Melnick said the company would likely resume operations as soon as the department of Labor and Industries approved their safety plan.
L&I is also working with Pacific Crest Building Supply to make sure they had proper safety protocols in place. Melnick said he was unaware of any lapses that may have led to the outbreak, though that was still under investigation.