Inland Northwest politicians put pressure on governors, health officials to accelerate reopening

click to enlarge Nadine Woodward wants Spokane on its own reopening plan. - DANIEL WALTERS PHOTO
Daniel Walters photo
Nadine Woodward wants Spokane on its own reopening plan.
Yesterday, Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward and other local leaders urged Gov. Jay Inslee to allow Spokane County to open on a different schedule than the rest of the state. 

Inslee, however, wouldn't budge. According to Woodward, he told them that can only happen if there are no new coronavirus cases in Spokane County for three weeks.

"It seems a bit unrealistic, to be honest with you," Woodward told reporters Tuesday.


City Council President Breean Beggs, who was also on the call, disputes her account of what Inslee said.

"That is not what I heard," Beggs says.

Inslee told them that only smaller counties without hospital resources need to meet that strict criteria, Beggs says.

"In terms of Spokane, and the larger counties, he acknowledged we would need a different criteria than the small counties and he said he would be developing and considering that over the next few weeks," Beggs says.


(UPDATE: Woodward issued a statement Wednesday afternoon saying, "The governor has been generous with his time and willingness to meet with us over past few weeks as we all work through this health and economic emergency together. We appreciate the clarity offered today by his office and look forward to additional guidance related to reopening the Spokane region.")

It's an example of the tension that has arisen as both Washington and Idaho have released their reopening plans. Many Inland Northwest politicians want region-specific reopening plans and have been frustrated that they must stick to the same timeline as the rest of their respective states. And they've put pressure on public health officials to support regional reopening.

The call Tuesday with Gov. Inslee included Woodward, Spokane County Commissioner Mary Kuney, Spokane Valley Mayor Ben Wick, Beggs and other local leaders. They inquired over what it would take to allow Spokane County to move past phase one of his reopening plan, which continues the ban on any gatherings and allows a few businesses — car washes, landscaping and car sales — to open up. The state has tentatively planned to wait until June to begin phase two, which allows in-store retail, hair and nail salons and restaurants to open with certain restrictions.

Woodward says she would like to get to phase two sooner than that. She notes that the new daily cases in the county are in the single digits and there's a decline in the number of hospitalized patients.

"I think we've hit that benchmark," Woodward says.

But Dr. Bob Lutz, Spokane Regional Health Officer, isn't so sure.


"I think there's definitely regional variations, but I am not going to advocate for this, 'We're different, and therefore we can do things differently' approach," he told the Inlander last week.

Rather, he would like to see a plan that allows certain counties to open in a phased approach as long as they meet certain criteria. His concern with Spokane County, however, is that the region isn't meeting the criteria he'd like to see in order to reopen. Lutz recently met with local elected officials and shared concerns with the fatality rate in Spokane County, which was higher than that of Snohomish or Pierce counties on the west side of the state.

"Our case fatality rate is pretty high in Spokane County," he says. "To say it's different [than the west side] is not truly accurate."

The nine people currently listed as hospitalized by the health district in Spokane do not include the dozens of veterans who tested positive for COVID-19 and who have been moved from the Spokane Veterans Home to the Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center, according to the health district. Some of those veterans may be receiving more intensive care.

Beggs also says that the hospitalization data doesn't include people who are from out of the area but receiving care in Spokane.

"When they say there's only nine people in the hospital, that's not true," Beggs says. "It's only nine people from Spokane County."

Only 10 counties in Washington would qualify under Inslee's condition to accelerate through the phased plan, but Inslee has said that the state will develop criteria in the coming weeks for larger counties to apply for a variance.

Lutz on Wednesday says that the idea that Spokane needs to have three weeks with no cases to accelerate reopening is "a little bit of a misunderstanding," noting that the state has said there will be a variance available for larger counties.

Spokane County's latest tally counts 380 confirmed cases and 23 COVID-19 related deaths. That's around a 6 percent death rate, though the actual death rate is likely lower because there are likely more people with the virus than have tested positive, Lutz says. He says Spokane hasn't had the supplies and resources for robust testing and rapid turnaround, which is crucial to any reopening plan.

"I need to be able to do robust testing and robust contact investigations to isolate and quarantine individuals and put a box around the virus," Lutz says.

He says the health district intends to be able to have the resources to do in-depth contract investigations by May 11.

When the Inlander asked Woodward if her statement that Spokane had met its benchmark was backed by local health officials, she acknowledged that the "conversation continues" with Lutz.

"I think he is getting a little more open to what bringing business back on looks like," Woodward says.

Beggs, however, isn't ready to say Spokane has met any benchmark to open up yet.

"I rely on our public health officer," he says. "I'm not a doctor."

THE OTHER SIDE

Idaho, meanwhile, already has churches and many businesses opening, even as similar places in Spokane remain closed. There are currently 66 total cases in North Idaho and no deaths, according to Panhandle Health District. Yet, Panhandle Health District has also heard from local politicians eager to reopen before the rest of the state. 
On April 16, weeks into Idaho's statewide stay-home order, a group of more than a dozen North Idaho legislators met with Panhandle Health wanting some answers, says Don Duffy, health services administrator at Panhandle Health and the incident commander for the region's public health response.

The legislators included Republicans Rep. Tim Remington, Rep. Vito Barbieri and Sen. Mary Souza. Democratic state Sen. David Nelson says he was also on the call, but was not advocating to reopen Idaho. Rep. Heather Scott joined briefly as well, on the same day the Spokesman-Review reported that Scott called Gov. Brad Little "Little Hitler" for not allowing certain businesses to work during the pandemic.

Panhandle Health District provided the legislators with data showing what might happen if the region were to open sooner than it should. But while the health district supports Little's reopening plan, they agreed with legislators on one thing: North Idaho shouldn't be stuck to the same timeline as bigger cities with higher infection rates, Duffy says.

"We talked about how we compare with Eastern Washington, not Southern Idaho," says Duffy. "We're hoping that if there's a significant increase in Boise, that we aren't restricted in North Idaho because of that and that they're looking at things regionally."

And again, it comes down to testing. North Idaho officials, however, are more confident that they have the testing capacity needed to open up under Little's plan.

In North Idaho, there were early issues that caused tests to come back sometimes as long as a week to 10 days later. The bulk of testing has been done at Kootenai Health, but the early issues mostly had to do with the capacity of the labs they sent the tests to, says Chief Physician Executive Dr. Karen Cabell. In March, the Idaho Bureau of Laboratories became overwhelmed quickly. Kootenai then started sending tests to the University of Washington lab, but sending tests across to Washington wasn't ideal either. After about three weeks of using the UW lab, Kootenai partnered with the Mayo Clinic, which improved turnaround times to under 48 hours, Cabell says.
Still, Cabell says they've been able to test everyone exhibiting symptoms of coronavirus. As of last week, less than 2 percent of roughly 4,000 tests came back positive, much lower than the roughly 7 percent positive rate in both Idaho and Washington overall.

Kootenai is already testing some asymptomatic people coming into the hospital, she says.

"Most of the cases in the last few weeks have been contact with other known positives," Cabell says.

Duffy, with Panhandle Health, says they hope to have a mobile testing clinic to set up at long-term care facilities in the area. And while the health district does expect a surge in cases as Idaho reopens, he's confident they can manage it.

"We believe we have the health care resources to answer whatever surge there is," he says.

Dave Jeppesen, director of Idaho Health and Welfare, says that the initial stay-home order in Idaho was imposed statewide to prevent people from congregating in unrestricted places. 
The same logic may apply to reopening plans as well. 

"If you take action in a community spread area, that drives people to then go to the area that doesn't have a restriction," Jeppesen says.

It's the same story in communities split by a state border, however. And Jeppesen acknowledges that it's a concern that Eastern Washington and North Idaho share a metropolitan area, yet are on different timelines for reopening.

Duffy says since North Idaho has more in common with Eastern Washington than Southern Idaho, they are trying to track cases in their neighboring community closely.

Yet besides sharing some models with each other, Spokane Regional Health District coordinates "minimally, minimally, minimally" with Panhandle Health, Lutz says.

He acknowledges that that's partly his fault, but it nonetheless makes public health work more difficult.

"It sends a mixed message that I think doesn't help the issue going forward," Lutz says.

Daniel Walters contributed reporting to this article.

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About The Author

Wilson Criscione

Wilson Criscione, born and raised in Spokane, is an Inlander staff writer covering education and social services in the Inland Northwest.