San Juan County pursues Phase Three

San Juan County may soon be entering Phase Three of Gov. Jay Inslee’s four-phased Start Safe reopening plan.

“There are things within Phase Three that I think are going to be easy to move forward and I think we can and should do that as soon as we can,“ San Juan County Public Health Officer Dr. Frank James told the county council during its regular meeting on June 23.

The following day, June 24, the San Juan County Council and Board of Health both voted to approve sending a request to the state to move the county into a modified version of the next phase of reopening.

In the modified Phase Three, San Juan County will see Inslee’s non-essential travel ban lifted; outdoor groups of up to 50 people may resume; recreation facilities, such as gyms and pools, may reopen at 50 percent capacity; restaurants and taverns may operate at 75 percent capacity with table size limited to no more than five people; and libraries and museums may reopen. Modifications specific to San Juan County include no indoor gatherings of more than five people; theaters are not yet allowed to reopen; and bar-style seating at a restaurant, tavern or bar may not yet resume.

“This will make way for weddings, some sports events, some camp activities that we couldn’t otherwise do,” James said during the June 24 meeting. “I think it’s an important opportunity for us going forward over the summer to allow those groups of 50 outdoors.”

If approved by Washington State Secretary of Health John Wiesman, the existing limitation of 50 percent capacity in transient lodging, camping and moorage will be lifted and may resume 100 percent capacity. This change will also reopen playgrounds.

James noted he believes the lack of enforcement of the state’s non-essential travel ban resulted in the order not being followed — particularly in San Juan County.

“I think we would have been better off, actually, if the governor had been able to enforce his limited local travel. In fact, I think we’ve essentially had non-essential travel already,” James told the council on June 23. “It’s unfortunate that there isn’t a way to do that because it would be extremely helpful.”

To qualify for Phase Three, the county had to meet various health standards as well as receive written assurance from partner medical facilities — PeaceHealth Peace Island Medical Center, PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center in Bellingham and Island Hospital in Anacortes. The numbers provided to the state for consideration include the number of licensed beds available and how many are occupied by COVID patients; the ability to test widely and rapidly; disease activity; and the reproductive rate of the disease.

After nearly six weeks of no new COVID cases in the San Juan Islands, three cases have been confirmed by San Juan County since June 15.

“I think that’s extraordinary considering how well-traveled our community is,” San Juan County Community Health Manager Ellen Wilcox said during the June 24 meeting. “I think it’s a reflection of how well prepared our community became as a result of COVID.”

The case of most concern to public health officials was that of a resident of Village of the Harbour, a senior living community on San Juan Island. Testing of 61 residents and staff, however, resulted in zero new infections, according to a press release from the county.

“Long-term care facilities are very high risk, as you may recall,” James said. “A single case in a long-term care facility is considered an outbreak, so we do officially have an outbreak in the county.”

While the initial senior home case is still being investigated, a press release noted that a follow-up test of the patient also came back negative.

The testing of people around the other two confirmed cases — one a Roche Harbor employee, the other a Lopez resident — also came back negative, according to James.

“The fact they were all negative is great for us, however, it leaves a mystery where this disease came from in [the Lopez patient] and he was off-island and stopped at several places,” James said. “As far as we can see, that case is also isolated, the contacts are in quarantine and we’re in — I think — good shape there.”

According to San Juan County Health and Community Services Manager Mark Tompkins, the county’s contact tracing and surveillance team is performing expertly.

“We are doing exceptional in getting all of our case contacts done within 24 hours, 100 percent,” Tompkins said at the June 23 meeting. “And I would venture to guess we’re at the 90-95 percent-plus of the contact tracing to be done within 24 hours and 100 percent in 48 hours.”

San Juan County Environmental Health Manager Kyle Dodd also commended the team on its work over the course of the last two weeks.

“It’s very unfortunate that several of these events happened Friday at close of business, and doesn’t allow our team to adequately unplug and recuperate over the weekend,” Dodd said. “Nonetheless, it shows the dedication and how hard those operations folks work behind the scenes to ensure that we’re able to respond very quickly to identify close contacts, get individuals tested and ensure that isolation and quarantine occurs. That is the reason why these individual cases don’t end up in small outbreaks. So, extremely proud of the work that they do.”

Dodd noted some inconsistencies between the state’s numbers and the county’s. Prior to being corrected, the state previously showed two confirmed cases more than the county was.

“These two that were assigned to our county were done so in the system after being reported by the lab. Staff are following up on the reasons why these two additional cases were assigned to us,” Dodd explained. “It appears that one has been tracked down as an individual that had a county address but hasn’t resided or been in the county since 2019. So this doesn’t have an impact on our county or our response.”

James noted that there is still much about the virus that scientists do not know which has made his job even more difficult.

“There is no perfect answer to the questions we face today,” James said. “These are the most challenging times I’ve personally ever faced in my life.”

Ultimately, James explained, the virus will be the one to decide when things are reopened. He noted that within the next two weeks, a very limited number of vaccines may begin testing in the region, but he added that it will likely be January 2021 at the earliest that a vaccine becomes widely available.

“We will not be free of this menace until after a vaccine is developed, deployed and utilized,” James said. “In history, there’s never been a vaccine from scratch to deployment in less than four years. So that January date, that’s optimistic.”

Jame said it is projected that cases will decrease over the course of the summer but will resurge in the fall when children return to school. But these are just predictions based on models, he said scientists ultimately do not know what the future will bring.

“Be mistrustful of those who are certain in their opinions as there are unknowns that are significant,” James said. “We don’t know when people traveling off-island to the mainland will meet the wrong person and become infected. We don’t know when close relatives will come to visit and bring more than a smile with them. We don’t know what will happen when the many communities from which people come to visit our community come, what will come with them. We don’t know how the organism itself will change over time. We don’t know when people will tire of doing the right thing. We don’t know how youth — with little to risk — will simply stop following our recommendations. We don’t know what will happen in the fall when school restarts and the risk will go up significantly for community spread. There is much, much more we don’t know.”

While San Juan County has mandated face coverings inside buildings in public since May 15, Inslee signed an order on June 23 requiring face coverings statewide effective June 26.

“We have to distance, we have to wash our hands, we have to wear masks if we expect all these things to work,” James said on June 23. “If we don’t do those things, we’re going to fail and have to go backward instead of forward.”