Local officials evolve response to covid-19

 

March 26, 2020

Rick Nelson

County officials will adopt points used by Chelan County to guide staffing for the next few weeks. Photos by Rick Nelson.

Wahkiakum County and the state of Washington have entered the era of the ark.

To halt the rapid spread of the corona-19 virus, Governor Jay Inslee has limited gatherings to two people and ordered people not involved in essential business to stay at home. (See more details about Inslee's proclamation in other stories in this issue.)

The number of cases, locally and around the world continues to grow rapidly.

Wahkiakum County has yet identified no cases, Chris Bischoff, director of county Health and Human Services, said Tuesday, but there are three in Cowlitz County and one across the river in Clatsop County, Oregon.

According to figures from the state Department of Health covid-19 website, the number of cases in Washington increased from 2,221 on Monday to 2,469, and the number of deaths increased from 110 to 123.

"I'd like everybody to behave as if it is here," he said during the Tuesday meeting of the Wahkiakum County Board of Commissioners. "We don't have a positive, yet."

The commission meeting was conducted in what will become the new protocol, using the internet communication program Zoom, in which participants can log in and hear and see other participants.

County officials spent much of the meeting discussing how they would continue to operate during the restrictions and identifying programs to pursue to deal with what they feel is the arrival of the virus. The officials wrestled with how to staff offices with just two persons; how employees would work remotely; how they'll be compensated in agreement with the employees' union, and how to make sure there's always one staff member outside the office who can step in if other workers become ill.


Prosecuting Attorney Dan Bigelow led the group through a Powerpoint presentation to explain the details of the governor's proclamation. Key points: The county, or other governmental entities, cannot pay employees who aren't at work, and working conditions must have union agreement.

Bigelow presented three scenarios used by other towns or counties; he recommended adopting a plan based on that adopted by Chelan County.

"The Chelan plan is constitutionally defensible," he said.

After 70 minutes of discussion, commissioners decided to recess their meeting to Wednesday morning so that Bigelow could prepare a plan to consider after consulting with the representative of the county union.

The county health department is taking steps to deal with covid-19 cases, Bischoff said.

Staff are working to find buildings that could be used to house people with covid-19.

Johnson Park in Rosburg is one; the Johnson House in Cathlamet is another. Commissioners authorized Bischoff to undertake improvements to the house, and they voted to accept $262,000 emergency state funding for covid-19 housing and furnishing.


Department staff are preparing badges and vehicle placards for employees so that they can be identified as essential employees authorized to perform work in the community.

He suggested the restrictions could last longer than the two weeks which the governor mandated, even six weeks, he said, depending on how the spread of the virus slows.

Meanwhile, Sheriff Mark Howie said his department is revising its operating procedures.

"Here in Wahkiakum, we are really ramping down on our protective measures for staff in limiting any two-way exposure to the public," he wrote in an email Tuesday afternoon. "Deputies are not to be out in public unless absolutely necessary to respond to calls. We are not conducting any pro-active traffic enforcement except for serious offenses that put the public in danger.

"In-house we are limiting dispatch area to no more than three people at a time and only in there for necessary business. All staff have to check their temperature with our fancy temp gauge prior to their shift and are directed to return home immediately if temp is 100 or above.


"Getting back to enforcement; we are following the WASPC guidelines and will only be contacting folks who are obviously violating the Governor's order i.e., out in public in groups, contacting groups indoors that are gathering, etc.

"We are on an educational-voluntary compliance basis at this point."

Rick Nelson

The new reporting: Reporters and other participants are working remotely, using online programs to attend meetings.

 

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