Tighter COVID-19 restrictions may be on the horizon for Lewis County restaurants, gyms and other establishments, as the state Department of Health (DOH) prepares to evaluate all 39 counties’ progress in stamping down the coronavirus.
Officials will announce early next week if Lewis County will be demoted to Phase 2 of Washington’s reopening plan. And while some county officials say there’s hope the state may bend the rules to keep Lewis County in the more relaxed Phase 3, current metrics paint a less promising picture.
Although case rates declined this week, Lewis County is still failing both metrics required to stay in Phase 3. As of Wednesday, Lewis County is seeing 216.8 new cases per 100,000 people, and a hospitalization rate of 8.7 per 100,000 — combined, the metrics would have Lewis County in Phase 2.
“I think we’re getting rolled back. I think it’s happening,” said County Commissioner Sean Swope, who also serves on the local board of health.
The state as a whole is staring down a similar reality. On average, Washington’s new case and hospitalization rates are at 238.5 and 5.5, respectively, also conferring a Phase 2 status.
And although state Health Secretary Dr. Umair Shah said it may be “premature” to predict what happens next week, Deputy Secretary for COVID-19 Response Lacy Fehrenbach told reporters Wednesday that “counties will be moved back based on their metrics for the time period.”
Shah noted that hospitalization rates are increasing across all age groups, and case rates are climbing in the majority of counties, excluding people 60 and older who are more likely to be vaccinated. As many as 75% of cases in Washington, he noted, are likely the B.1.1.7 variant, which spreads more easily.
But still, there may be hope for Lewis County to skirt Phase 2 restrictions. County Manager Erik Martin told commissioners Monday that recent conversations with the state Department of Health indicate that the state may choose to keep counties “like ours” in Phase 3 despite their metrics.
Before the state’s last round of county evaluations, Gov. Jay Inslee similarly announced a last-minute change in reopening criteria, making it easier for counties to maintain their status. Although, as things stand, the change wouldn’t keep Lewis County in Phase 3.
Anderson told county commissioners that, in discussions this week with DOH officials, he would bring up some findings that could support the prospect of leaving Lewis County in Phase 3.
Namely, Anderson reported restaurants and other establishments that would be impacted by tighter restrictions under Phase 2 “don’t seem to be the places the virus is transmitted.” Instead, he pointed to harder-to-regulate gatherings of family and friends as a main culprit of community spread.
Anderson also pointed to a decrease in case counts reported this week. The county reported 69 cases, compared to 103 the week prior. However, two new deaths brought the county’s death toll to 58 — more are likely in the pipeline as county officials work to confirm COVID-19 as the cause of other recent deaths.
An additional congregate-care outbreak was also reported.
“Ultimately, it’s the state’s call. And I’ll abide by their decision in what’s required,” Anderson said. “But I do think it’s good to have a frank conversation about how we best support Lewis County and those businesses working to reopen and those folks looking to get vaccinated.”
If Lewis County is rolled back, Swope said he expects not only COVID fatigue from his constituents, but rebellion similar to what the community saw in the wintertime, with some business owners openly — and proudly — flouting public health measures.
“I’m super concerned about Phase 2 and what that’s going to do. I think you’re going to see people go a little nutty on that,” he told The Chronicle.
Swope described phone calls with constituents who used “colorful language” to complain about masks and other public health guidance. He himself expressed frustration that public health officials haven’t dove into a discussion on Phase 4.
“If we were just talking about Phase 4, I think there’d be a little more patience,” he said. “If that’s being discussed — how we can get to Phase 4 — I think people could stomach more, because there’s an end game.”
What About Thurston County?
As of Wednesday, Thurston County is in the clear, with metrics that would keep it in Phase 3 of the state’s reopening plan. Thurston County’s hospitalization rate of 8.2 is above the state’s average, 5.5, but the county’s 173.2 new cases per 100,000 would save it from being demoted to Phase 2.
Washington state officials will announce early next week which counties will move between Phase 1, 2 and 3 of the reopening plan. Counties’ statuses are based on new cases per 100,000 people reported in the past two weeks, as well as new COVID-19 hospitalizations reported in the past one week. Currently, if counties fail both metrics, they move back a phase. To move forward in a phase, counties must meet both metrics.
For counties like Lewis and Thurston, with a population above 50,000, the metrics are as follows:
• Phase 3 — case rate less than 200, hospitalization rate less than 5%
• Phase 2 — case rate less than 200-350, hospitalization rate less than 5-10%
• Phase 1 — case rate >350, hospitalization rate greater than 10%