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Officials debate re-opening Okanogan County

Okanogan County officials Tuesday debated possible paths for the county to progress into the state’s Phase 2 toward easing COVID-19 restrictions.

To qualify to move to Phase 2 of the state’s “Safe Start Washington” phased recovery plan, a county won’t gain permission if it hasn’t seen three weeks since its last positive test for COVID-19.

County commissioners met with Okanogan County Health officials in an open Zoom meeting, as a line of division became evident, following arguments similar to those heard across the state and nation: More conservative politicians push for opening up while health officials and no-so-conservative elected officials caution against doing it without the right tools in place, mainly the ability to test for the coronavirus and to trace contacts of those found to be infected.

Okanogan County should have 1,000 test kits by the end of the week, having ordered 2,500, said Okanogan County Health District Community Health Director Laurie Jones. It’s still hard to get swabs and the re-agent medium for transporting samples.

The county has just one “point of care” machine that can run those tests on the spot but would need more if large employers, such as the huge Gebbers orchard and packing operations, are to be able to screen employees coming to work in fruit packing houses.

Jones said she’s on the phone with Gebbers officials daily, and they’re very intent on doing it right.

“The last thing they need is any disruption in their worker program … or anything else,” she said of the company that expects some 1,500 workers to arrive by the end of the month.

Health Officer Dr. John McCarthy said the county has a needle to thread, acknowledging the costs of not opening up.

“We have costs if we don’t open things up and costs if we do,” he said. And precautions included in any plans for eventual re-opening can’t be treated cavalierly.

Commissioners Jim DeTro noted domestic violence calls are up 100 percent from last year in the county.

Commissioner Andy Hover said businesses have been opening anyway, noting what he estimated as an increase of 50 percent more bicyclists on the road through the Methow over last year. He said people will eventually stop listening and start circulating again no matter what.

State Secretary of Health John Wiesman Monday approved applications by three counties to re-open into Phase 2 — Wahkiakum, Skamania, and Stevens. He had already approved variances for Columbia, Garfield, Lincoln, Ferry and Pend Oreille counties last week. Restaurants and some other businesses can resume operations there with several restrictions.

The Colville Tribes and its 12 Tribes Colville Casinos, which closed even before the state announced its shutdown plan, said last week it would re-open its casinos on May 19.

Grant County has seen six new cases in the last week, for a total of 188, including a second case in the Grand Coulee-Electric City area. Okanogan County has 31 positive cases.


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