All Washington schools closed for six weeks, events over 250 banned to guard against COVID-19

click to enlarge Dr. Bob Lutz, Spokane Regional 
Health District's health officer.
Dr. Bob Lutz, Spokane Regional Health District's health officer.
Spokane Regional Health District Officer Bob Lutz ordered that events and gatherings of more than 250 people be canceled on Friday, a move intended to guard against the spread of the COVID-19 virus that is sweeping Washington state and the world.

The order, which goes into effect at 5 pm today, will last for at least 30 days, and covers all events, including performances, sporting events, and places of worship. The "social distancing" measure could be extended if necessary, Lutz said at a Friday morning press conference.

Lutz's order does not cover regional public schools, he said. However, only hours later, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee ordered that all K-12 schools throughout the state be closed from March 17 until April 24, the Seattle Times reports. Inslee also ordered a similar statewide ban on events over 250.
While Spokane County has yet to report any individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19, Lutz said that the virus is already present in the community and that they have been receiving regular reports of possible cases. The order to cancel large-scale events is a move to head off a potential rapid spike in COVID-19 cases and prevent the regional health care system from being overloaded.

"We've not found ourselves having to concern ourselves with a public health pandemic in our lifetimes," Lutz said, flanked by elected officials from the county and local cities. "While locally we remain in somewhat containment mode, our efforts are rapidly moving to mitigation. This is to slow the spread of the virus [that] we believe, really know, is already here, although we do not, as of yet, have documentation."


"We are still ahead of the pandemic in our community, and knowing that by increasing prepared action now, we can slow the progression of COVID-19," he added. "It's only a matter of time."

Lutz' rationale behind not making the call to close schools was that COVID-19 impacts young people less severely than old people, doesn't appear to impact the spread of the virus in a meaningful way, and that he recognizes closing schools can be highly disruptive.

"It is probably the one decision that will impact the most number of individuals across our community, both young people as well as adults, and businesses," Lutz said. "We already know that it's, for example, very challenging for people to find child care, so all of a sudden parents are having to stay home to care for their children, what do you do when they can't go to work? So the ramifications are significant."

Lutz also said that he considered mass gatherings to be a bigger public health concern than places where many people cycle through, such as courtrooms.

"I don't typically see 250 people or more in one courtroom," he said. "So for me, it's actually that congregate situation that is more concerning than the amount of people going through a space over a period of time."


While rumors swirled that the city of Spokane would be enacting an emergency declaration, Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward said at the press conference that she had "no announcement to make on that yet."

"I can speak on behalf of all the cities and the county too that we are working collaboratively on what our approach will be and how we'll address this," she added.


When asked about the number of people who have been tested for COVID-19 in the region, Lutz had no hard numbers, since individual health care providers are ordering tests at their own discretion.

"We really do not have a sense as to how many tests have been done, but we do get to see the reports when they come back," he said. "There is a lag time between when they're testing and when they come back."

Statewide, Washington's Department of Health reported 568 confirmed cases and 37 confirmed deaths as of Friday afternoon. Another 6,001 tests had come back negative for the virus, according to the department.

When asked who should try to get tested, Lutz said that while providers have the ultimate discretion, those experiencing COVID-19 symptoms — fever, dry cough, difficulty breathing — who also have high-risk factors like an underlying medical condition or their age, should definitely get tested.

"It's this fine line that we run between having sufficient testing capabilities and overwhelming the system," Lutz said. "So my recommendation to individuals is that if you meet the criteria for having COVID-19, those symptoms that we're seeing are fever, persistent fever of over 100.4 degrees, cough, and or chest tightness, shortness of breath, those are symptoms that definitely warrant consideration. If those are in conjunction with other medical problems, such as breathing problems, heart problems, that really warrants you getting tested."


Contrary to some reports, the limitation on testing is not on specific test kits needing to be sent to hospitals. Doctors may take samples with a swab of the nasal cavity, throat, and/or sputum, Lutz said. Then those samples are sent to labs to be tested, and that's where some limitations are being seen, though Washington should be able to test hundreds of people per day.

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About The Author

Josh Kelety

As a staff writer, Josh covers criminal justice issues and Spokane County government. Previously, he worked as a reporter for Seattle Weekly. Josh grew up in Port Townsend and graduated from the University of Washington. Message him through Signal @ (360) 301-3490.