A car pulls into a COVID-19 testing site that is set up outside the Everett Clinic at 4027 Hoyt in Everett on Tuesday. (Sue Misao / The Herald)

A car pulls into a COVID-19 testing site that is set up outside the Everett Clinic at 4027 Hoyt in Everett on Tuesday. (Sue Misao / The Herald)

When life returns to normal, it won’t be the normal you knew

COVID-19 social distancing will likely end in phases, over months. State and local health officials preach patience.

OLYMPIA — There’s every indication Washington is getting the upper hand in its battle against COVID-19, but don’t plan on life returning to normal in a month — or maybe even a year.

Public health officers remained steadfast Tuesday against setting a timeline for easing restrictions credited with slowing the coronavirus spread by shackling society and shuttering the economy.

State and county officials have contemplated a deliberate, methodical unwinding of social distancing directives to allow people out of their homes and businesses to reopen. But it will be done in phases, and it may last months to prevent the virus from making a deadly resurgence, they said.

“We’re looking toward the future. We’re not going to totally stop or contain this virus unless we have a treatment or vaccine,” Secretary of Health John Wiesman told reporters Tuesday afternoon. “This normal we’re going to go into will be a different normal.”

You could be seeing people wearing face masks in public places and employers screening workers. Customs such as shaking hands are “not going to be OK” for some time, he said.

It is going to be a very slow and frustrating process, acknowledged King County Public Health Officer Jeffrey Duchin.

“Unfortunately the next year is probably going to be a very challenging year for all of us,” he said.

These days health officers are wrestling with how best to tamp down expectations amid growing evidence that the epidemic is waning overall in Washington.

A new study released Monday by the Bellevue-based Institute for Disease Modeling shows the rate of transmission from one person to another has dropped in King and Snohomish counties and is now at or near a level viewed as manageable by public health experts. This analysis attributes the decline largely to the strict social distancing regulations.

Other data — such as the rate of increase in new COVID cases, hospitalizations and deaths — are also trending in the right direction in many parts of the state as well.

Modeling from the University of Washington shows daily statewide deaths from the virus could drop below five by May 1. But, if Gov. Jay Inslee lifts his “Stay home, stay healthy” order, coronavirus-related deaths could rise again in the summer, the same modeling predicts.

As of Monday, at least 10,538 people have been infected statewide and 516 have died in the nearly three-month-old outbreak. In Snohomish County, there have been 1,950 confirmed infections and 77 deaths as of Tuesday.

“We are not at the end of this by any stretch of the imagination,” nor at a point where we can think comfortably about relaxing social distancing rules, said Dr. Chris Spitters, health officer for the Snohomish Health District.

Yet that’s what’s on the minds of many, including the governors of Washington, California and Oregon, who on Monday announced they would collaborate on how best to reopen their states and continue to fight COVID-19.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown on Tuesday each set out targets to be met before their respective lockdowns would be lifted. Inslee is working on one as well. He has a news conference scheduled for Wednesday.

All three states are eyeing the same benchmarks, health officers said Tuesday.

One goal is to ensure ample supply of test kits so everyone with symptoms can get a test as needed and a quick result. There must be the ability to conduct complete contact tracing, as well as to provide isolation and quarantine for those who are positive or exposed.

Protecting those most at risk for contracting severe COVID-19 and ensuring workers have access to personal protective equipment are key. States want to be sure their hospital and health systems can handle a surge, should there be one.

And policy makers want to be confident if schools and businesses reopen, they do so in a way that continues to provide social distancing. That may mean people are in their cars waiting for their haircut, or more staggered lunch breaks at schools or fewer tables in restaurants.

“It will be a new way of acting for quite some time,” Wiesman said.

There is no specific set of numeric data that will trigger action by Inslee.

“Our office is spending quite a bit of time on how to safely come back online,” said David Postman, Inslee’s chief of staff.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@herald net.com. Twitter: @dospueblos.

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