San Juan County COVID update

During a special joint meeting on May 11, the San Juan County Council and Board of Health discussed the initiation of an ordinance requiring face coverings, requesting the county be considered to allow progressing to Phase Two, and grants the county has received to help with COVID operations.

“There have been no cases that were acquired in the islands where we could not identify the source and there has been no community spread in the San Juans to date. That’s an extraordinary achievement,” San Juan County Public Health Officer Dr. Frank James said. “We’re not one of these counties that has never had a case, we’re a county that’s had a significant number of cases, all of which we’ve been able to identify their source and we’ve been able to adequately investigate them and prove there is no spread beyond those cases.”

James noted the cases in the county were contracted outside of the islands or spread within a family. He added that while the county has succeeded thus far, there is still a lot to protect and was concerned about the lack of social distancing and mask-wearing he had witnessed the weekend prior.

“I think what we saw was the impact of people coming here from other locations — some of them, certainly, from high-risk locations. … What we saw this weekend was very disturbing to me. We saw a large number of people come here, utilize our restaurants for take-out food, utilize our marinas and they did not engage in the same high standard of safe behavior that we have grown accustomed to in our own population,” James said. “What I am very concerned about is the reports of fairly widespread lack of using of masks and the fairly widespread engaging of people in less than socially safe distancing behaviors. … We won’t know the true impact of that from one to two weeks.”

James said he is worried because the county won’t immediately see the effect these visitors had on the islands, and should anyone outside of the county be diagnosed with COVID, local public health authorities could potentially never know.

“I am very worried about that and believe that we need to, looking forward, be as effective as we can in preventing, not only the threat to the health of our population but the threat to our economic well being. … I think they put us at significant risk and are a significant concern to me.”

A rise in cases in the islands could set back any progress the community has made, James said. If the county is approved to progress to Phase Two and an increase occurs, the state could move it back to Phase One.

“The one area we might not be [in good shape] is … outbreak response. If we did have a significant outbreak with a significant number of people, we would overwhelm our current capacity and that’s something we need to have an improved plan,” James said, noting he was working with the legal department on how to impose the face-covering order. “I think we need an effective way to ensure that masks are used — not as a recommendation but as a requirement.”

Hughes said the request to the state to progress to Phase Two could take at least 10 days, putting the county being approved around June 1, when the rest of the state is anticipated to move to that phase as well.

“I do fully support moving into phase two with a mask requirement,” County Council Chairperson Rick Hughes said. “I don’t want to endanger a single person in our county.”

County Councilmember Jamie Stephens asked whether Phase Two would mean reopening vacation rentals. James replied that there are many things the governor’s plan doesn’t go into detail about. He added that while Phase Two allows for restaurants to open at 50 percent capacity, he doesn’t see that being the case in San Juan County.

“It’s really our discretion to open that up, not the governor’s. We just have to make sure we’re consistent with what the governor said,” James said, noting that until Phase Three, the prohibition on non-essential travel is largely in place. “I don’t think he envisions that we open up tourism in our county in phase two. … If people can’t travel here, there’s no point in having places for them to stay.”

James said he is optimistic about the county’s ability to move forward, identifying that the vulnerability to the community is a “substantial risk” from tourism. He added, however, it was good news that there isn’t community spread as was made evident by the 300 negative results when the county tested essential workers.

“By testing the people, if there were widespread asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic cases, we would have identified them,” James said. “We tried to pick out the highest-risk people, the people who were going out and providing essential services in the community.”

The board of health encouraged James to write a letter to the state requesting permission for the county to move to Phase Two but showed hesitancy in approving a letter sight unseen.

“I understand the sense of urgency. I understand the inherent delay in the bureaucratic process that has been mandated to be followed by the state to actually submit a variance request,” County Councilmember Bill Watson said. “I understand this balancing act. I’m not even sure we’re ready to go to full phase two.”

The board of health is set to meet at 11:30 a.m., May 20, to discuss and potentially agree to support James’ plea to the state.

“The current pandemic has literally brought our nation to a standstill,” James said. “We have to care, not just for those people that we know about but some that we don’t necessarily know about. We’ve got to care for everyone in our community. That’s the only way it’s safe for everyone else.”

The Washington State Department of Commerce announced on May 8 that the county would be receiving $943,250 from the federal government’s CARES Act. San Juan County Grants Manager and Emergency Operations Center Administrator Tara Anderson explained what the grant may be used for to the county council.

“Governor Inslee announced that the state will distribute funding from the federal stimulus package directly to local governments — like ourselves — that did not receive direct distribution under the CARES act. These are formula awards that are based on population,” Anderson said. “These funds are for use by our local government to cover necessary payroll and unbudgeted expenditures incurred in the response to the public health emergency. … Any unspent funds will need to be returned.”

The county can use the CARES funding until Dec. 31, Anderson explained. This grant appears to be the most broadly beneficial assistance, she added. Allowable costs include payroll and benefits expenses of county staff whose work duties have been dedicated to COVID-19 mitigation; county unemployment insurance cost recovery; county telework capability enhancement; and broader communities support in the form of rent and mortgage assistance programs or small business grants.

The CARES funding can also cover all the costs that the Federal Emergency Management Agency grant does.

“This is the most restrictive of grants — with a lot of preapproval requirements; specific language that’s required out of our public health orders; and very limited invoicing terms,” Anderson said.

The FEMA grant, which is an unspecified amount, covers 75 percent of approved costs, while the other 25 percent must be covered by non-federal local funds. It covers costs associated with the county’s Emergency Operations Center; personal protective equipment; emergency medical care; medical shelter; and temporary medical facilities.

“The key takeaway I would like council to walk away with is that it’s only 75 percent and it’s highly restrictive dollars,” Anderson said.

The county has received lesser grants, Anderson explained, including election-specific CARES Act funds totaling $140,000; a Washington State Department of Health grant of $75,000 that can be used for public health response; and minor grants include emergency management and children and families in need of care.

“The staff’s been working really hard to make sure we capture all the costs through the use of project decoding. All the county departments have been doing this since the inception of the pandemic,” Anderson said.

The financial department is looking at ongoing response and recovery costs and opportunities where funding may be available for broader community response and economic stimulus, according to Anderson.

As of Friday, May 8, the county has accrued $484,785 worth of costs incurred in relation to COVID-19 response, Anderson said. There is also a $312,000 grant waiting in the wings from the department of commerce to be used for contracting services for quarantine and isolation housing.

“Everything is so free-flowing right now. We need to take a little bit of time to step back and take a look at what we anticipate our costs are going to be; what we think the losses to our revenue might be; and then what outside funding mechanism we have and we need to make really good decisions moving forward with that,” Hughes said.