VIDEO: COVID-19 Q&A with Clark County Public Health Officer Alan Melnick

The county is warning people over the age of 60 to avoid crowds and stay home if possible to avoid infection

CLARK COUNTY — Public gatherings are still allowed in Clark County, where only one case of COVID-19 has been discovered, but the public health department is issuing some advice to the elderly and vulnerable.

“We’re issuing these recommendations because we’re particularly concerned about our seniors and people with underlying medical conditions, who are vulnerable to severe illness from COVID-19,” said Dr. Alan Melnick, Clark County health officer and public health director.

Doctor Alan Melnick, Clark County Public Health Officer, talks about COVID-19 and the county’s response. Photo by Chris Brown
Doctor Alan Melnick, Clark County Public Health Officer, talks about COVID-19 and the county’s response. Photo by Chris Brown

While it is not a requirement, Melnick says his office is recommending people over the age of 60, or those with health issues like diabetes, heart or lung disease, and lowered immune systems remain home and avoid gatherings of people.

COVID-19 has been especially hard on the elderly. Out of 366 confirmed cases in Washington state, 59 percent have been in people over the age of 60. Only two percent of cases involve someone under the age of 19, according to the state Department of Health.

On Wednesday morning, Governor Jay Inslee issued an order banning any gathering larger than 250 people in King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties, where most of the state’s 350-plus confirmed cases are located. Four more deaths were reported in King County, bringing the statewide death toll from the outbreak to 29.

Three of the four new deaths reported Wednesday were also residents of Life Care Center in Kirkland, which has seen 22 deaths from COVID-19.

“These are not easy decisions,” Inslee said. “It is clear that our state needs a more vigorous and more comprehensive and more aggressive position if we are going to slow the spread of this epidemic.”

On Wednesday evening, Oregon Governor Kate Brown issued a ban on all gatherings of 250 or more statewide. Schools will remain open for now, but many after school activities are canceled.

“Nobody is immune to this virus, it can touch everyone,” Brown said. “We can’t let fear and anxiety stigmatize people. We are seeing cases across multiple counties and age groups, and in people exposed through different circumstances. It’s time for us all to do what we can to slow its spread and take care of one another.”

Shortly after Inslee’s announcement, Seattle Public Schools announced that classes would be suspended for at least two weeks. The Seattle Mariners also said they would be playing games outside of the city until further notice.

Washington State University also announced that they would be switching from face-to-face instruction to distance learning following spring break at all campuses, including in Vancouver. 

(By the way, WSU digital literacy expert Mike Caulfield has some great tips to help you recognize misinformation about the coronavirus online. You can read more about that here.)

By Wednesday evening, the National Basketball Association had announced that games are being “suspended indefinitely,” after Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for the virus.

Shortly after that, actor Tom Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson confirmed that they have tested positive for COVID-19 while in Australia filming an upcoming movie.

Washington State University will go to all distance learning after spring break, the school announced today, even at its Vancouver campus. Photo by Mike Schultz
Washington State University will go to all distance learning after spring break, the school announced today, even at its Vancouver campus. Photo by Mike Schultz

At the White House, President Donald Trump made his first address to the nation since the outbreak began, assuring Americans that his administration would be “marshalling the full power of the federal government and the private sector to protect the American people.”

The president also announced that flights from Europe would be suspended for at least 30 days, starting this coming Friday at midnight. Flights from the United Kingdom would be exempted from the ban for now, and Trump said exceptions would be made on a case-by-case basis.

“Earlier this week I met with the leaders of the health insurance industry who have agreed to waive all co-payments for coronavirus treatments, extend insurance coverage to these treatments and to prevent surprise medical billing,” the president added. “We are cutting massive amounts of red tape to make antiviral therapies available in record time.”

In an attempt to ease economic fears over the outbreak, the administration is working to add $50 billion in funding for low-interest loans to small businesses, to help them weather the storm during the pandemic. The Treasury Department has also been instructed to defer tax payments without interest or penalties for certain individuals and businesses negatively impacted.

“Finally, I am calling on congress to provide Americans with immediate payroll tax relief,” Trump added. “Hopefully they will consider this very strongly.”

No ban on groups in Clark County

While Melnick says his office is not currently recommending a ban on public gatherings, several groups are taking their own actions.

The State of Clark County address scheduled for Wednesday evening was postponed earlier in the day. The City of Vancouver announced on Tuesday that their March 26 address from Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle will be a “virtual address,” streamed online and on public access cable.

St. Joseph Church in Vancouver announced they are canceling upcoming public gatherings under directions from Archbishop Etienne, including public mass, effective immediately. Sunday masses are also being canceled until further notice.

Fort Vancouver Regional Library and the Camas Library have already announced upcoming public events have been canceled for the month of March, starting on Friday.

So far, schools in Clark County are expected to go on as normal, though Melnick says there will be ongoing conversations about the best course of action.

“If we decided to close a school, we have to think about what are the potential consequences of doing that,” says Melnick.

The virus currently seems to be exceptionally mild in children, meaning they may be carrying it without being aware. If grandpa and grandma are called in to watch a child who isn’t at school, so mom and dad can keep working, says Melnick, that could be the perfect storm of exposing vulnerable populations to infection.

“What if the parents are healthcare workers, and they have to stay home and take care of the kids because they’re not in school?” Melnick asks. “That’s a concern we have, of removing healthcare workers from the workplace.”

PeaceHealth Southwest and other Clark County hospitals can now send tests for COVID-19 to a lab at the University of Washington in Seattle. Photo by Mike Schultz
PeaceHealth Southwest and other Clark County hospitals can now send tests for COVID-19 to a lab at the University of Washington in Seattle. Photo by Mike Schultz

And many children receive meals as part of the lunch assistance program, meaning they could be left without a valuable source of nutrition if their school closes down for an extended period of time.

“I’m not saying we’ll never make the decision to close schools,” Melnick adds. “I can think of one scenario: a lot of teachers are out sick, so they can’t really even hold classes.”

More test results due back soon

The one positive case, a man in his 70s, had not traveled outside the country or had contact with another known COVID-19 case. That means, says Melnick, that this was a case of community transmission, and the virus is among us.

Given that fact, Melnick says it’s only a matter of time before Clark County sees more tests come positive for infection. Currently there are 17 tests awaiting results at the state public lab, and six others have come back negative.

With a lab at the University of Washington now operational, healthcare providers no longer need to rely on the state health labs to test people for COVID-19. That means the total number of pending tests may not be known, but Melnick says they will know how many tests are returned, whether positive or negative.

Until this week, the maximum number of tests the state could run were 200 per day. Since each case requires two tests, that adds up to 100 people. The UW lab will be able to run up to 3,000 tests each day, or another 1,500 people.

That is reflected in the quickly rising numbers of confirmed cases. Since healthcare providers are able to test more potential infections, rather than just recent travelers or people who’ve been hospitalized with symptoms, the total number of cases is expected to sky-rocket in the coming days.

Current tests take 2-3 days to return results, but the Cleveland Clinic on Wednesday announced they had developed tests that could show results within 8 hours. It was unclear how quickly the new tests could be distributed to labs across the country.