Governor: Reopening state more like ‘turning a dial than flipping a switch’

Gov. Jay Inslee, on Tuesday, outlined his framework for getting businesses back open

OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee, on Tuesday, outlined his framework for a process to begin lifting his Stay Home, Stay Healthy order, though he did not set a specific timeline.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee delivers an address from his office in Olympia. Photo courtesy office of Governor Jay Inslee
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee delivers an address from his office in Olympia. Photo courtesy office of Governor Jay Inslee

“It is going to resemble more of a turning of a dial than the flipping of a switch,” said Inslee, reading a prepared statement. “We will not be able to lift many of the restrictions by May 4, and we will let you know when we can lift those restrictions just as soon as we know.”

Inslee said new data in the coming days will inform many of the state’s decisions regarding easing restrictions on businesses deemed non-essential at the start of the shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic that has killed nearly 700 people in Washington, and more than 45,000 people nationwide.

“The data tells us that if we were to lift all restrictions right now, or even two weeks from now, this decline would almost certainly stop, and the spread of COVID-19 would go up,” said the governor. “Our gains in this fight have been hard won thanks to the sacrifices of countless Washingtonians, and to turn back on this successful temporary approach now would be disastrous.”

Inslee did say that they hope to begin allowing hospitals to start resuming some elective procedures. This comes as some hospital systems in the state have begun sounding the alarm about their financial health, as elective and non-emergency procedures were largely stopped by the shutdown, and hospital traffic has fallen to record lows across much of the state.

The Vancouver Clinic said its ambulatory surgery center is currently operating only 1-2 days a week, meaning many routine procedures have been postponed for weeks.

“Elective and non-essential care is important to the overall health of our patients,” the provider said in a written statement. “Prevention and screening for diseases like cancer can improve quality of life and outcomes for our patients. We are currently not doing routine colonoscopies or mammograms and we all know early detection saves lives.”

“Legacy Health will continue to follow the requests of both Governor Jay Inslee and Governor Kate Brown to minimize elective procedures as long as the threat of a significant patient surge exists,” said Brian Terrett, director of public relations for that hospital chain. “Doing so helps us reduce the spread of the coronavirus and allows us to minimize the use of personal protective equipment. However, we do recognize that there are many procedures that our patients and providers delayed that are becoming more critical in nature.”

Inslee said his goal in allowing some elective procedures to resume would be rooted in the availability of personal protective equipment. While supplies have increased, many hospitals are still limiting their usage out of an abundance of caution.

The governor also said he has worked with the construction industry to allow for a “sensible plan” for allowing the return of limited construction, with safety measures in place. He did not detail what that plan was, or how it would be implemented.

“We also hope we can begin to let people take part in more outdoor recreation,” said Inslee, who has taken heat for being one of the few states to ban hunting and fishing as part of his stay-at-home order. “That is so much part of our identity, as well as our physical and mental health.”

Testing and tracing a key

Inslee noted that the first key to easing restrictions would entail a massive testing and tracing program. The state, along with local health departments, the National Guard, and volunteers, aim to have 1,500 people across the state tested by mid-May, working to trace confirmed cases in an effort to isolate people who have been exposed to them.

But the first step, Inslee says, is a massive increase in the amount of testing being done.

“In Washington, we have more lab capacity than we have test kits,” said the governor, “and a lack of supplies have kept us from getting everyone tested who should be.”

Inslee said the state is currently able to run around 4,000 tests per day, but needs to be closer to 20,000-30,000 per day in order for the contact tracing plan to work.

“We need swabs, vials, re-agents, and other supplies and personnel,” Inslee said. “We’re doing all we can in this state to acquire that. We need the federal government to help us more.” 

Inslee said he sent a letter to Vice President Mike Pence today, outlining the state’s need to increase testing, and urging the government to step up supplies. The president’s COVID-19 taskforce has said they anticipate soon having the capacity to test up to one million people per week nationwide in the near future.

The new normal will look different

The governor’s office is currently working to put together guidelines for businesses on how to implement safety standards as they are allowed to resume operations. Those will include physical distancing measures, health screening, teleworking where possible, rigorous cleaning standards, and protective equipment supplies for employees.

Beyond that, the governor said the hardest job may be finding ways to continue supporting those who need help during the economic recovery.

“We have simply got to redouble our efforts to protect the most vulnerable amongst us,” he said, speaking of those over the age of 65 and people with underlying health conditions. “We need more behavioral health services for anxiety and depression and substance abuse, because the effects of this pandemic have hit more than just our immune systems and our bank accounts.”

The governor said he will be appointing three leadership groups, focused on public health and the state healthcare system, on the passage to a return to work safely, and ways to successfully restart the state’s economy.

Inslee’s statements come two days after thousands gathered in Olympia, largely to protest the ongoing stay home order, and urging the governor to let them go back to work.

On Tuesday, Inslee reiterated his statement over the weekend he is focused on a “strategic approach guided by science, not politics.” 
“We know that only science, and data, and informed reasoning, and confidence in ourselves is going to lift us out of this crisis,” the governor concluded. “Washingtonians are going through enormous suffering, but they’re also doing amazing things on the path to recovery.”

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