Coronavirus straining Snohomish County health care system

More patients, more demands for testing and lack of protective gear hamper clinicians.

EVERETT — Snohomish County health care providers are reporting high patient loads, high demand for testing, limited capacity to evaluate patients in the absence of airborne isolation rooms, and diminishing stocks of protective equipment to guard themselves from COVID-19.

As a likely long-term measure, the Snohomish Health District is encouraging providers to triage or treat patients by telephone, or to use other means they deem appropriate to reduce visits by patients who don’t appear to require urgent care. In updated guidance the health district issued Tuesday for clinicians, the agency also advised they had no direct influence or immediate answers for the shortage of protective gear, such as respirators, gowns, gloves and eye protection.

“For the time being, (we) can only encourage you to conserve its use according to standing recommendations,” the district wrote.

The district also recommended clinicians educate their staffs and patients about the virus, and to anticipate a large increase in the number of patients related to the novel coronavirus in the coming weeks and months, including those requiring hospitalization.

Tove Skaftun, chief nursing officer at Community Health Center of Snohomish County, a nonprofit serving mostly low-income patients, estimated walk-in traffic at their seven clinics is up 20 percent in recent days. The center is following many of the recommendations issued by the health district, she said.

“I dont want to say there’s mass hysteria, but there’s heightened concern from people everywhere,” she said. “We’re trying to provide a lot of reassurance.

She pointed out that 80 percent of suspected cases require no intervention, and that none of the center’s patients have tested positive for the virus.

“Staying home, if you can manage your symptoms, is the best thing to do for everyone right now,” Skaftun said.

Meanwhile, officials announced Wednesday afternoon that two more Snohomish County residents tested positive for the virus and a third person is presumed positive, bringing the number of confirmed and presumed positive cases in the county to nine, including one death.

Testing is underway and results are pending on 36 others. Ten people have tested negative for the virus.

The news comes as growing fear over the virus is prompting some people to hunker down at home, others to clear store shelves of cleaning and health products, and still others to avoid public transportation.

One school in the county remained closed Wednesday; another just across the county line sent students home; and others that have reopened after cleanings are starting to see student attendance rise. As a precaution, Everett officials are discouraging in-person attendance at a city council meeting March 11.

On social media, commenters continued to question the effectiveness of the government’s response to the growing health emergency.

Others are taking events somewhat in stride.

“I’m concerned, but I’m not panicked,” Cory Rosen, 61, said outside the Mukilteo Starbucks on Wednesday. “I’m not running out to the store to get toilet paper. That’s ridiculous. They say you should have a two-week supply. That’s what triggers panic. So what do people do? They go out and buy a four-week supply of toilet paper.”

He got his cold brew to go.

“Normally I come in here with my laptop but it’s probably best to go home,” he said.

Citing “an abundance of caution” over the spread of the virus, both Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers and Everett Mayor Cassie Franklin on Wednesday declared a state of emergency in coordination with Snohomish County’s Health Officer Dr. Chris Spitters, who simultaneously declared a county public health emergency. The declarations provide more flexibility to respond to the rapidly evolving situation and make collaboration easier, the officials said.

“We know people are concerned, and this declaration will help us work together to keep people safe,” Somers said in press release. “The public can be assured we are responding as quickly and decisively as possible.”

The three scheduled a joint press conference for 10 a.m. Thursday at the county office building in downtown Everett.

The Board of Health also will meet to consider tapping emergency reserves to help pay for the response. County health officials said Monday they’d spent $125,000 on the effort so far and that the cost could grow to $700,000 over six months.

The country’s first COVID-19 case was confirmed on Jan. 21. The Snohomish County man, 35, was admitted to Providence Regional Medical Center Everett. He became ill five days after returning from a trip to Wuhan, China, and was treated in a special isolation unit devised for the Ebola outbreak five years ago. After two weeks at Providence, he was monitored at home and fully recovered. But some now fear that the virus continued to spread for weeks afterward and that public health officials were slow to intervene to stop the outbreak.

Classes canceled

In Northshore School District, some students at Woodmoor Elementary were sent home Wednesday after a parent tested positive for the virus. The school will be closed Thursday.

“The parent/volunteer was diagnosed with a different illness and hospitalized in late February. Medical professionals made a decision to test for the coronavirus yesterday,” Northshore School District Superintendent Michelle Reid wrote in an email. “That parent/volunteer was at the Art Walk on Friday and volunteered in the classroom on Monday.”

The district’s Frank Love Elementary was closed for the third straight day Wednesday, awaiting COVID-19 test results for a staff member. Northshore covers schools in portions of King and Snohomish counties.

“Each day, more of our families, students, and staff are being asked to self-quarantine, and we are finding it increasingly difficult to staff our schools and support services,” Reid wrote in another email.

All Mukilteo School District schools were open Wednesday. Diane Bradford, district spokesperson, said the average absence rate on Monday, Feb. 25 (before any school closures), was 8%. The average absence rate Tuesday was 15%.

Fewer transit commuters

On Monday and Tuesday, ridership on Community Transit buses was down 8.5% compared to February numbers, according to data from the public transit authority. Trips to Seattle saw the biggest dip — down 13.7%.

At Paine Field, passenger traffic was down “a little bit,” about 5 percent, said Brett Smith, CEO of Propeller Airports, which built and operates the two-gate terminal at the county-owned airport.

“It’s a tad early to see a trend,” Smith said.

No licking please

Done filling out your ballot for the presidential primary?

The party declaration box has to be marked, but after you put down your pen, don’t stick out your tongue.

The state has a campaign: “Whether healthy or sick, please don’t lick.”

Voters are asked to use alternative methods to seal ballot return envelopes, such as a wet sponge or cloth.

Carrying on

Barb Gall, of Mukilteo, left a Walgreen’s store Wednesday with a bag with St. Patrick’s Day items and two boxes of cookies from the Girl Scout, who had set up shop outside.

Gall said she was “somewhat concerned” about the coronavirus.

“I’m a little bit on the fence right now,” she said. “I was even thinking I don’t know if I want to eat at restaurants because you never know … but it’s not stopping me from going out and doing things. I go to work every day.”

The Bellevue mortgage company where she works has started letting employees work from home.

“I’m not going to now,” Gall said. “If I start seeing more deaths and more people sick, it might make me stay home.”

The Girl Scout selling cookies used hand sanitizer after every sale.

Phillip O’Connor: 425-339-3480; poconnor@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @phillipoconnor3

Who to call

For general questions about COVID-19 or Washington State’s response, call the Washington State Novel Coronavirus Call Center at 800-525-0127.

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