Snohomish County COVID-19 briefing: As cases rise, end of federal assistance a worry and schools in a holding pattern with remote learning

Snohomish Health District Chair and County Councilmember Stephanie Wright

Coronavirus cases continue to rise in Snohomish County, and that is sparking concerns that federal assistance money will run out by the end of year, long before the pandemic is under control. That’s the big takeaway from the county’s weekly COVID-19 update Tuesday.

The loss of that money, said SnohomishCounty Councilmember Stephanie Wright, would leave the county’s virus response crippled, and “our communities, businesses and charities would pay the price.” Wright is chair of the Snohomish Health District Board and represents the southwest part of the county, including Edmonds, Lynnwood and Woodway, on the county council.

Snohomish Health District officials said there are 50-70 new cases every day. In the last two weeks, the county’s rate of new cases has jumped to 72 per 100,000 residents, up from a rate of 54 the previous two weeks. Hospitalization rates are also creeping up, averaging about 20 patients daily. There is an outbreak at the Tulalip Tribal Boys and Girls Club; eight cases at least. County health officials and the tribe are tracing contacts that might lead to more cases. County Executive Dave Somers said the virus “may well be with us for another year or more,” and he does not expect a vaccine until next spring at the earliest.

Snohomish Health District Administrative Officer Shawn Frederick

The health district’s administrative officer, Shawn Frederick, said the spike in cases means “we are asking all schools to hold where they are currently are.” The new case rate is approaching 75/100,000 and that’s the point at which schools are advised not to bring students back into the classroom. Schools do not need to move backwards if they have brought in special needs children; but Frederick says they should not start more classes in person. The district will update schools next week on their status.

The health district has spent as much as $750,000 dollars a month fighting the virus, and has used some of the federal funds to hire more than 60 temporary staff to do contact tracing and testing. The federal grants are set to expire in December. “If we continue to spend our money at the rate we have been,” Wright warned, “we would drain the health district reserves before the end of 2021.”

“We would,” she added, “have to eliminate most if not all of the temporary positions in January unless the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act funding is extended for another year.” There is no guarantee that Congress will do that. Wright said the “loss of these positions and funding would severely diminish our capacity to continue to respond at the same level.” County officials said they do not have the resources, and don’t expect the state to help pay for what the federal money supports

Snohomish County Emergency Management Director Jason Biermann

The head of the county’s Emergency Management team, Jason Biermann, warned that federal dollars “ensure we take care of the most vulnerable; providing food security and aid for first responders.” The county has spent $20 million from that fund for personal protective eEquipment for health care workers and others. The government money also goes to support the county’s Nourishing Neighborhoods food program, soon to expand to 22 locations, in what Biermann calls the most “at risk” neighborhoods.

Asked if the spike in cases could trigger a “stay at home” order again, Somers told the briefing “we have not been talking about going back to a full stay-at-home mode.” The health district’s Frederick echoed that, saying “rather than prepare for another stay at home, it would really be a better use of everyone’s energy if we limit social gatherings and mask up and practice good social distancing… we absolutely have the ability to control this with our individual efforts.”

— By Bob Throndsen


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