Health officials concerned over lack of tests, funding and ‘likely’ community transmission of COVID-19

Kitsap Public Health District holds special meeting to provide update, concerns for COVID-19

On Tuesday, the Kitsap Public Health District Board held a special meeting to provide updates and address concerns surrounding the COVID-19 outbreak.

Key among the health district’s concerns is a lack of testing supplies, lack of funding and the likely forecast of community-level transmission of the virus.

Health Officer Dr. Susan Turner and Administrator Keith Grellner began the meeting with a presentation displaying the current statewide status of cases and deaths related to COVID-19. There have been 48 deaths and 904 cases recorded in the state spread across 18 counties. The majority of cases are in King and Snohomish counties.

Locally in Kitsap County, there have been seven cases of COVID-19 detected with 129 negative tests. COVID-like illnesses, emergency room visits and hospitalizations have risen as well, according to KPHD. Community-level transmission of the virus is considered likely across Kitsap County. Isolation and social distancing are being urged by the health district.

“Because of the geographic distribution of lab-confirmed cases in Kitsap, community-level transmission is likely,” Turner said. “Not surprising, unwelcome, but not surprising. We’ve made plans looking forward to activating more staff to do case and contact investigations since we really feel like that’s one of the most effective ways to slow the spread in our community. We’re not going to stop it, but that will help us to slow it.”

The Health District displayed three emergency response goals for Kitsap County, which are:

  • Prevent the spread of COVID-19
  • Reduce the risk of high-risk populations
  • Slow the incidence of COVID-19 so the health care system is not overwhelmed

Through last Friday, 30 KPHD employees have worked 2,500 hours and used $175,000 to address the COVID-19 outbreak.

“Our agency only has 100 people,” Grellner said. “Our people are not dedicated to emergency response; we all have full-time regular duty jobs. Those 30 people that we have operating our response efforts right now, their regular jobs are not being done for the most part. If they feel like they’re not getting the response that they’re used to getting from the health district … it’s because of this.”

During the presentation, the health district also outlined some of the virus response challenges and gaps. Testing capabilities remain limited at the state level and at private labs, as well as shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) and other testing supplies. Other response challenges include hospital capacity expansions, parental challenges resulting from school closures and the behavioral health impacts surrounding fear and isolation. KPHD also has not received any funding for response efforts yet.

“A lot of the talk that we’ve all heard on the radio, on the TV about funding becoming available, materials becoming available, testing becoming available — that’s not entirely true,” Grellner said. “It’s supposed to be in the pipeline but it has not reached the local level yet.”

Grellner also addressed the activation of the Kitsap County’s Department of Emergency Management’s Emergency Operations Center and the potential for housing, isolation and quarantine facilities.

“We have received word that there may be some funding available for that. Sheltering in-place could be one of those next steps that we may have to consider.”

As the meeting shifted toward comments from local elected officials, Poulsbo Mayor Becky Erickson started by declaring that the City of Poulsbo will not be holding council meetings for the near future.

“We’ve been advised by our attorney that we have no way to exclude certain people from an open public meeting,” Erickson said. “If somebody comes into our meetings that is ill or of the demographic age that we really should be concerned about, we can’t tell them ‘no.’ It’s problematic for us. Consequently, the City of Poulsbo will not be holding council meetings.”

On the other hand, Port Orchard Mayor Rob Puutansuu stated that the City of Port Orchard will go forward with council meetings with social distance measures in place.

“Unless I talk about utility rates, I never get 50 people in my council chambers,” Puutansuu said. “I plan not to put anything controversial on my agenda that is going to put a bunch of people in my council chambers. We still need to make payroll and pay our bills. There’s certain things we still have to do to function.”

Bremerton Mayor Greg Wheeler stated that most city parks will be shut down and they won’t be issuing or accepting special event permits going forward.

Kitsap County Commissioner Robert Gelder said the Board of Commissioners has accepted a contract with the Department of Commerce to distribute $30 million to the state in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Kitsap County will receive just shy of $700,000 to support homeless individuals and for future isolation and quarantine centers. The goal is to have those isolation centers in place by April, if not sooner, Gelder said.