COVID-19 spreads across the state leading to mass closures of public spaces

As COVID-19 inches toward the San Juan Islands, public health officials continue to encourage everyone to wash their hands and stay home if they feel ill.

“If you’re coughing a lot, stay home,” San Juan County Community Health Manager Ellen Wilcox said during a live-streamed status update by the county on March 9.

There are still no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the San Juan Islands as of March 16, according to public health officials. Twenty-four people have been tested, eight have received negative results and 16 tests are pending.

As of March 16, 769 people have tested positive in Washington, and 42 have died from the disease. Globally, there have been 175,250 confirmed cases worldwide and 6,706 deaths as of the morning of March 16.

A rapidly evolving story across the nation, President Donald Trump announced a national state of emergency regarding the coronavirus outbreak on the afternoon of March 13.

Earlier that day, San Juan County Council held a special meeting to also announce a state of emergency within the county —opening it up to increased state and federal funding regarding the outbreak response.

“We fully continue to expect at some point in time we will have COVID-19 here in San Juan County,” San Juan County Department of Emergency Management Director Brendan Cowan said. “We’re being proactive with this, anticipating there’s a lot of work to be done. And we have a little chance here — a little window — to do this before things become a little more complicated in the weeks to come.”

COVID-19 is the name given to the disease outbreak caused by the novel coronavirus which originated in Wuhan, a city in China.

Minimizing the risk of exposure is maintaining public health 101, Wilcox said. She urged everyone to wash their hands, wash them well and wash them properly; to cover their cough with their elbow; and to use a hand sanitizer that is at least 60 percent alcohol.

Wilcox and San Juan County Department of Emergency Management Director Brendan Cowan hosted the video to answer some questions the community may have. There will likely be more live streams in the future, according to Cowan.

Coronavirus itself is known to cause anything from the common cold to Severe acute respiratory syndrome and the Middle East respiratory syndrome. The majority of patients present with persistent fever, cough and difficulty breathing, according to Wilcox.

The county is also asking anyone who may have been exposed to someone with COVID-19 but has not developed symptoms, to stay home for 14 days and self-monitor.

“That’s how we keep our communities safe,” Wilcox said.

The people with the highest risk of severe symptoms are age 60 and older and those who have chronic underlying health conditions.

“They seem to be getting the sickest,” Wilcox said.

While there is no treatment, Wilcox said that what is known so far about COVID-19 is that 80 percent of patients have very mild, moderate or no symptoms. Those patients can stay home, remain out of the public and consult health care providers over the phone, she added. The other 20 percent, however, require medical care, she said. She encouraged patients who are well enough to stay home to provide some relief to the health care system so it is free to help with more severe cases and those who have other health care needs.

Wilcox noted that officials are likely not going to be able to contain or stop the spread so efforts are being focused on how to reduce that risk and slow that spread.

“How do we keep the risk as low as possible in the public?” Wilcox asked. “Lots and lots of planning going on as we anticipate how this will unfold in our county.”

One concern island residents have stated is whether they would have to leave the island to receive testing — should it be needed. No, Wilcox said. The county is working with providers in the community to determine whether the patient is in need of testing and has the means to do so if needed. The tests are then sent off-island and take a couple of days for results to return, Cowan added.

“If people are sick and they do show signs of illness, they want them consulting with their medical provider,” Wilcox said.

Wilcox explained that not everyone who catches the disease will have symptoms and there is a growing amount of evidence that says some people are asymptomatic or just have mild symptoms. She suggested keeping groceries and prescription medications stocked and making arrangements for children and pets.

Cowan said everyone should prepare for the virus as they would any other emergency, like an earthquake. People may be isolated to their houses for a couple of weeks and not have any way to restock supplies.

“That’s good advice for this as well,” Cowan said. “It’s good practice for people to be ready. This is a good time to boost up our earthquake preparedness.”

Cowan also emphasized the spirit of community that is in the islands and suggested checking in on neighbors — especially those who may be more vulnerable to the illness.

“We’ve got a wonderful community and I do have a lot of confidence and faith that this community can come together when they’re asked,” Wilcox said.

There were questions regarding whether there could be cases in the San Juan Community that the public and county aren’t aware of.

“It’s possible,” Wilcox said. “We just don’t know that, yet.”

If it were more widespread infection, however, Wilcox explained she’d expect to see some very acute-severe cases.

“So far, we haven’t seen that,” Wilcox said. “That’s not to say it couldn’t change tomorrow or in two weeks.”

Some community members have floated the idea of shutting down the ferries to keep COVID-19 from entering the community.

“There’s really no evidence that that’s going to be effective,” Wilcox said, adding that people depend on the ferries as their main mode of transportation to and from the islands. “Closing the ferries down would be a very, very extreme measure and we’re nowhere close to that.”

How long could the outbreak last?

“This is very complex. … COVID-19 is a whole different ball game,” Wilcox said. It could be months or years, she explained. The public health departments don’t really know for sure and that can be difficult for the community to understand. No one knows all the answers yet, she added.

Ultimately, Cowan said, it’s best to find a happy medium between the two extremes being in full denial or full freak-out mode. Be calm, rational and concerned, he added. He explained that the outbreak is a big deal and something that needs to be paid attention because it’s not just a bad case of the flu.

Wilcox suggested the best way to help the community is to make sure you’re informed and get your information from trusted sources.

“We don’t have all the answers and we’re not going to have all the answers,” Wilcox said. “We have made the commitment and we will remain committed. … It’s going to take a collective community effort to make a collective community impact to really slow that spread.”

For more information and the latest update fro San Juan County regarding the outbreak, visit

Schools close

Gov. Jay Inslee announced on Friday, March 13, that all K-12 schools in the state of Washington will be closed until at least April 24. Less than an hour before Inslee’s announcement Trump’s national state of the emergency announcement.

“… There are critical services our schools provide that will need to continue during closures. That includes nutrition and child care,” Inslee said. “I urge labor and management to work together in the best interest of kids. This is not a vacation, work may look different but the expectation is that school employees will still be working.”

Lopez, Orcas and San Juan school districts are all prepared to continue providing breakfast and lunch to students who are in need of that program’s continuance. They will all be pursuing tele-learning options for the six week closure as well.

Lopez Island School District announced on March 12 that it would be closed the week of March 16-20 to, “assess the growing coronavirus situation, do contingency planning, and in this current moment of uncertainty not have children in a school setting and in contact with larger groups of fellow students and school staff.” The date was later moved up to include March 13 because a non-teacher district employee was under suspicion of having COVID-19.

The school district will continue to provide nutritional services while staff and the board pursues option for continuing education remotely.

Orcas Island School District Superintendent Eric Webb said the school will providing all children with breakfast and lunch during the school closure — with the exception of during the school’s originally planned spring break. The school has also planned non-graded educational opportunities for students online. Chromebooks will be provided to students in need, Webb said, and Rock Island will be providing wireless internet connection to the students.

San Juan Island School District Board Chair Barbara Bevens said the district is on track to continue teaching its entire student body via tele-school, in partnership with Rock Island; to continue special education, with some adaptations; to continue meal service; and continue employing all its staff.

“There are still many unknowns, the situation is very fluid,” Bevens wrote in a letter to the community on the district’s website on March 14. “Different issues arise daily, but between our community and our outstanding staff, our kids will move forward and be prepared to meet next year exactly where they should be.”

For more information about how each district intends to manage services during the closure visit their websites at, or

Bars and restaurants close

Inslee announced on March 15, his intention to sign an emergency declaration temporarily shutting down restaurants, bars and entertainment and recreational facilities. He said restaurants will be allowed to provide take-out and delivery services but no in-person dining. Grocery stores and pharmacies are excluded and other retail outlets will have reduced occupancy. He also prohibited all gatherings of more than 50 people.

“These are very difficult decisions, but hours count here and very strong measures are necessary to slow the spread of the disease,” Inslee said. “I know there will be significant economic impacts to all our communities and we are looking at steps to help address those challenges.”