EVERETT — Local health experts on Thursday issued new recommendations for slowing the spread of COVID-19 — urging residents to avoid or cancel large gatherings, among other measures — and said there are now 18 cases of the new coronavirus in Snohomish County.
At a news conference here, the Snohomish Health District’s health officer Dr. Chris Spitters said residents should practice smart personal hygiene as well as “social distancing,” which means avoiding unnecessary contact or close proximity with others. He also recommended that group gatherings of more than 50 people be avoided or canceled. The larger the group and the closer the contact, the more risk of infection, he said.
Acknowledging the recommendations may cause difficulty for many, Spitters also called on businesses to allow employees to work from home, avoid holding large meetings and to maximize sick leave benefits to allow employees who are ill to stay home. On Thursday, an increasing number of institutions, including the Boeing Co. and several senior centers, closed or took other voluntary measures to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.
Health officials, however, are not mandating closures, despite growing calls from some that schools be shut down.
“We know that closures have a large impact on students, staff and families and require a lot of coordination and cause disruption,” said Spitters, who added that he remains in close contact with superintendents and that closures could come at any time.
Petitions calling for school closures — circulating in at least three districts (Everett, Mukilteo and Edmonds) — have garnered thousands of signatures. Many of the comments posted on Facebook during a live-streaming of Thursday’s press conference also called for schools to be shut down.
“If we aren’t supposed to have gatherings of more than 50, how can you have school? Schools are gatherings of hundreds of people with some of the worst hand washing skills,” wrote Forrest Wendt.
Officials encouraged people to practice good personal hygiene, to work from home if possible and to avoid seeking tests at clinics, community health centers and emergency rooms — fearing they could be overwhelmed. Anyone feeling ill should call ahead before visiting a medical provider.
Snohomish County and city officials also announced emergency declarations to help governments respond to the health emergency, including easing requirements for purchasing things like personal protective equipment for health-care providers and emergency responders.
Procedures are changing too. First responders in Everett are wearing protective masks when they are called to emergencies involving respiratory problems, Mayor Cassie Franklin said. Similar practices are in place in neighboring jurisdictions.
Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers said the community faces tough challenges.
“Our goal is to keep people safe, to slow or reduce the spread of the disease, and to really protect vulnerable populations,” he said.
At least 18 confirmed cases here
The 18 cases of coronavirus infection in Snohomish County reflect a twofold increase from Wednesday. Thirteen are confirmed or “presumed” positive, according to the health district, and five are “probable” and await confirmation from a second test. Thirty-seven other people have been tested, but the results are pending. There are 15 people who have been tested with negative results. In all, 70 people have been tested in the county. These numbers were as of 5 p.m. Thursday.
The Snohomish Health District said that of the 18 people infected, nine acquired the disease from the Life Care Center nursing home in Kirkland, the source of numerous cases.
Eight people presumably acquired the virus in the community, and one person, the first diagnosed in the U.S., acquired COVID-19 during a visit to China. He has since recovered.
Statewide there are at least 70 confirmed cases, according to the Washington State Department of Health. They include the first outside King or Snohomish counties. One person in Grant County now is infected. In all, 11 people have died, including a man from Snohomish County.
Unlike in King County, the COVID-19 cases in Snohomish County appear to be more spread out, Spitters said. The Snohomish Health District would not release information about where those cases were located.
Social distancing should be combined with other illness-prevention steps, Spitters said, including frequent hand-washing and disinfecting frequently used surfaces.
Officials also recommended that people over age 60 — or those with underlying health conditions like heart or lung disease, diabetes, a weakened immune system or pregnancy — should avoid public gatherings.
Even healthy people were advised to avoid hospitals, long-term care centers and nursing homes. If necessary, visitors should limit their time in such facilities and stay at least six feet from patients.
People with a cough or fever should stay home from work for 72 hours after the fever is resolved, or seven days after the illness began, whichever is longer.
Schools and businesses react
On Thursday, Everett Community College and Washington State University’s Everett campus closed for extensive cleaning. Both are set to reopen Monday. In a related move, the Northwest Athletic Conference suspended the college basketball tournament that was scheduled at EvCC.
And after Everett Community College announced its closure, the school said, it learned that a student tested positive for COVID-19. The case was reported through King County.
On Wednesday, the Northshore School District said it would close for up to two weeks and begin teaching students online.
Monroe schools closed Thursday for cleaning and staff preparation.
And on Thursday evening, the Marysville School District announced someone in the community had tested positive for COVID-19, and that person “may have come into regular contact with children who attend Pinewood Elementary, Sunnyside Elementary, and Marysville Getchell High School.” All three of those schools were set to close for disinfection Friday, out of an abundance of caution.
Senior centers in Everett, Edmonds and Lynnwood were closed until further notice. Older people are particularly vulnerable to the virus, health officials have said.
Normally on a Thursday, about 75 seniors would have a hot lunch at Everett’s Carl Gipson Senior Center, and about 200 would come to the center for programs or to socialize, said Bob Dvorak, center director.
“We’ve had a lot of people who have asked about food,” Dvorak said.
The center has partnered with Homage to provide lunches. Starting Friday, seniors can pick up a sack lunch from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays in front of the center.
“There will be food for everybody,” Dvorak said.
State leaders react
Gov. Jay Inslee, at a morning news conference in Olympia, stressed that even if you’re not sick, this is a time to consider avoiding “non-essential meetings” and “congregations of people that are not necessary for their well-being or their family’s health or economic well-being.”
“This is not an order,” he said.
While he has the power to cancel public events, for now, Inslee said, he’s counting on folks to do the right thing.
“Acting even before we see mass casualties may be the most effective thing to do,” he continued. “We’re asking people to look ahead a few weeks and not be in a position of Wuhan, China.”
State officials were working to make it easier for people to get tested.
Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler issued an emergency order Thursday to health insurers to waive copays and deductibles for any patient who needs to be tested for the coronavirus. The order also requires insurance plans to allow a one-time refill for prescription drugs, and it suspends any need for a patient’s health insurance plan to give authorization before testing or treatment.
If there aren’t enough medical providers in network to provide testing or treatment for the virus, patients must be allowed to be treated by another provider within a reasonable distance at no additional cost.
Spitters said the health district and government leaders will continue to assess what further action needs to be taken, but said the number of those testing positive for the virus is expected to continue to rise.
“We just want this to end with as little suffering and death as possible,” Spitters said after the news conference. “It’s important to remember 80% of infections are just a cold, or a bad cold. We just want to limit that and have this be over and let people get back to their normal lives. But it’s not going to be over next week, you know.”
Chuck Taylor, Sharon Salyer, Phillip O’Connor and Caleb Hutton contributed to this story.