By Kari Bray / Snohomish Health District
The novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is having a large impact on our communities. New rules put in place to reduce the spread of the virus are creating challenges for families, businesses and organizations. There is no way around it — this disease and the steps being taken to slow its spread are disrupting our lives.
Despite the strain on our community during this time, we know that the people of Snohomish County are resilient. We have a history here of supporting one another. This pandemic is something we can get through together and we need everyone’s help along the way.
In this blog, we want to clarify the requirements that have been put in place for social distancing, talk about how people can help with the economic impacts of COVID-19, and explain how close contact notifications are changing.
Understanding the social distancing requirements
It’s important to understand the measures being taken to slow the spread of this disease. Schools across Washington are closing for at least six weeks, gatherings with more than 250 people are temporarily prohibited statewide, and gatherings in Snohomish County with fewer than 250 are prohibited unless they meet certain requirements for illness prevention. Those requirements are outlined in the health officer’s order from March 11, 2020.
Events are defined as gatherings for business, social, spiritual, or recreational activities. This includes community, civic, public, leisure, faith-based, or sporting events, as well as parades, concerts, festivals, conventions, fundraisers, or similar activities. It does not include healthcare, public safety or other critical infrastructure operations.
At this time, retail businesses and service operators such as grocery stores, drug stores, movie theaters, restaurants, and other retail establishments may continue to provide services as long as they also take all steps indicated to minimize the spread of illness.
Please note that these are not suggestions or guidelines, they are requirements. Events and gatherings with fewer than 250 people are prohibited unless they meet and maintain all of the following:
• Attendees, customers and employees that are 60 or older, have underlying medical conditions, have compromised immune systems, or are pregnant have been encouraged not to attend or enter;
• Social distancing recommendations must be met. This means people are able to stay at least 6 feet from each other, aside from minimal and momentary contact at closer distances when absolutely necessary;
-This includes where individuals are sitting and standing, with the exception of families and/or parents/caregivers with small children.
-Along with the 6-foot distance, social distancing includes not shaking or holding hands; not sharing commonly used items like phones, keyboards or microphones; or other situations where hands are touching shared surfaces or objects without being sanitized between people.
• Employees are screened for coronavirus symptoms each day and excluded if symptomatic. Symptoms could include sore throat, cough or fever.
-Employees should ensure they are fever-free and do not have symptoms like sore throat, cough or difficulty breathing before they leave home and report for work. While at work, if they develop fever (a temperature higher than 100 degrees F or subjective fever) or respiratory symptoms like a sore throat, cough, or difficulty breathing, they should immediately:
• self-isolate (separate themselves from others)
• notify their supervisor
• go home and stay home until 7 days after symptom onset or 72 hours after symptoms resolve, whichever is longer
• if symptoms persist or worsen, call their health care provider for further guidance.
-Employers in health care settings should consider measuring employee temperatures and assessing symptoms prior to starting work. For others, relying on employee reports is acceptable in most settings.
• Proper hand hygiene and sanitation must be readily available to all attendees, customers and employees.
• Environmental cleaning guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) must be followed, including more cleaning and disinfecting of high-touch surfaces at least daily.
Understanding why these measures matter
We do not take these requirements lightly. These are important steps to reduce the spread of an illness that is particularly devastating to certain groups, including people who are 60 or older, people who have underlying health conditions (heart, lung or kidney disease, diabetes), people with weakened immune systems, and pregnant women.
While the majority of people who become ill with this virus recover without needing hospitalization, even mildly ill people can spread the virus to those who are at higher risk of severe illness. Reducing the spread of COVID-19 is essential to protect lives.
We know that this response is a long-term effort. It is also an effort that will only work if our community comes together and we all take the steps necessary to minimize the impacts of this illness.
A number of businesses and organizations will need to adapt and potentially reduce operations to meet the health officer’s order. Some may have to temporarily close their storefronts or cancel plans for events that are core to their operations. We understand that this has a significant impact to our community and requires an adjustment to our daily lives. However, it would be even worse for businesses or organizations not to follow the requirements and the result to be more widespread illness, more severe cases, and potentially deaths. No business or organization wants to be at the center of an outbreak.
We encourage businesses and employers to visit our resources available online. We also have different posters available to download that you can post on doors or windows.
How businesses can help
We are relying on our businesses and organizations to make the decisions that are safest for their employees and guests. They also need to look ahead and understand that, as this illness spreads, more confirmed cases and close contacts who become symptomatic will be required to quarantine for at least two weeks. It may not be realistic to keep operations fully staffed.
We also encourage businesses to look at ways they can adapt operations to keep people safe and healthy while continuing to do their work. A number of businesses and organizations are expanding their online or phone options. Businesses also should ensure that they are following all CDC recommended cleaning and disinfecting procedures and that people who are ill are encouraged not to enter the business. Now is a good time for businesses and organizations to highlight the steps they are taking so their customers can have confidence.
While businesses should not have ill employees or guests on the premises, they should not bar others based on assumptions about risk. Remember that stigma – based on racial or ethnic background, profession, or any other factors – will not help us fight this outbreak.
How you can help
There are options to enforce the social distancing requirements in the health officer’s order. However, as we work hard with limited resources to address a pandemic, we are relying on the people of Snohomish County to do their part.
We are relying on members of the public and community leaders to speak up when they see something like a business or event where these requirements are not being met. Tell the person who is operating the business or running the event about your concerns respectfully, and direct them to www.snohd.org/ncov2019 for more information, including the health officer’s order and the requirements in it.
While these rules are disruptive for businesses and organizations, the community can help ease the economic impact.
If you are worried about going out to eat or if your favorite eatery has closed its indoor dining area because of the social distancing rules, consider ordering a meal and picking it up or having it delivered. Check out the websites and social media accounts of your favorite local stores or other businesses and see if they are offering online promotions or shopping options so you can continue to support them. Consider ordering a gift certificate now for an activity or restaurant that you or a loved one can use later.
We know that new measures to slow the spread of COVID-19 in our community are particularly stressful for parents, and for anyone who cares for kids. As we continue to work together to protect our friends and neighbors and slow the spread, we face new challenges, including showing up for our kids in a scary, uncertain time. Our colleagues at Public Health – Seattle & King County just published a blog on how you can show up for kids during the outbreak.
Don’t forget to look out for neighbors in your community. Offer to help those at high risk and who are encouraged to remain at home by shopping for groceries or running errands that are urgent and cannot be done online. Donate to your local food banks. Connect people to online or phone resources.
New coronavirus response fund for Snohomish County
A new fund has been created to provide resources to the frontlines of the novel coronavirus outbreak in Snohomish County.
The Community Foundation of Snohomish County launched the fund on March 13, in partnership with the Snohomish Health District, Snohomish County, and United Way of Snohomish County. Premera Blue Cross and BECU also made large contributions, and the fund launched with $250,000.
People can learn more or donate at www.cf-sc.org. All donations will go directly to programs and services identified in consultation with Snohomish County, Snohomish Health District and United Way of Snohomish County. The funds are for organizations in our region working with communities who are disproportionately impacted by this virus.
“As the Snohomish Health District continues to work toward slowing the spread of illness, these dollars will be critical to supporting those impacted by containment interventions and community mitigation measures,” said Dr. Chris Spitters, Health Officer of the Snohomish Health District.
Confirmed cases and close contacts
Due to the increasing number of cases, our disease investigators are no longer able to contact every person who is considered a close contact of a confirmed case.
We are still contacting all confirmed cases, which includes anyone who has a positive test result as well as anyone who is a close contact of a confirmed case and develops symptoms of respiratory illness.
When someone is contacted by the Snohomish Health District because they are a confirmed case, they will received guidance from our public health staff as well as an official letter from the Snohomish Health District to provide to close contacts. This letter is the new method of notifying close contacts and provides instructions on what they need to do. If a confirmed case identifies close contacts who are in a high-risk category, the Snohomish Health District may also reach out individually to those contacts. Those high-risk categories include: healthcare workers, first responders, and individuals who are 60 years or older, have underlying health conditions or compromised immune systems, or are pregnant.
If you receive a message by phone, email or mail that you are a close contact of someone with a confirmed case of COVID-19, it is important that you follow the instructions. If you are an employer, family or friend of a COVID-19 contact, please support them in following the instructions.
Workplaces may also be notified by an employee that they are a confirmed case or a close contact. A table with general guidance for isolation and quarantine is available online at this link. We understand that the quarantine requirements will have a significant impact on businesses. This is part of why social distancing is crucial – if employees have not been in close proximity (within 6 feet or shared workspaces), they will likely not be considered close contacts.
If an employer is notified by an employee that they are a confirmed case or a close contact, the employer should work with that employee to ensure the needed support, such as sick leave benefits or remote work options. Additional notification may be sent to other employees in the workplace at the employer’s discretion, while respecting the medical privacy of the affected employee.
Workplaces should continue to follow the requirements outlined in the health officer’s order. At this time, decisions on temporarily closing locations are at the discretion of the business or organization, unless they cannot fulfill the requirements of the order or are specifically instructed to do so by the health officer.
The Public Health Essentials! blog highlights the work of the Snohomish Health District and shares health-related information and tips.