While there have only been a handful of new positive cases of the disease in recent weeks, the county does not yet meet the criteria for an “early reopening,” according to officials with the Kitsap Public Health District officials, during a Tuesday meeting to discuss the state of the COVID-19 crisis in Kitsap County.
Earlier this week, Gov. Jay Inslee signed Washington’s “safe start” plan, which outlined four phases for reopening the state. Within that document is the provision for certain counties with small populations to request a variance to move directly to phase two of the plan earlier than the rest of the state, for which it is penciled in for June 1.
Kitsap County does not, at this time, qualify for the variance, which is limited to counties of 75,000 people or less that have not had a positive case within the past three weeks. Kitsap has approximately 270,000 people and although KPHD has reported only 15 new cases in the past three weeks, that is still 15 too many.
However, even if Kitsap did qualify, officials worried that there is currently not enough testing supplies or staffing to perform contact tracing to be ready to accelerate the reopening.
Dr. Susan Turner, Kitsap’s Health Officer, said the state had about 20,000 test kits in its supply; the Kitsap Emergency Operations Center had about 1,500, according to Poulsbo Mayor Becky Erickson, council chair at the county’s emergency management center.
At the moment, testing is available in Kitsap, material and supply shortages notwithstanding. The county is now testing all symptomatic residents.
“We hope to see a difference in that in the next two weeks when substantial supplies are anticipated to come into Washington,” Turner said.
However, Turner noted that Kitsap was expected to receive more tests from the state’s supply, but with outbreaks going on in eastern Washington, those kits were redirected there, and the next shipment is at least another two weeks out — if Kitsap doesn’t lose out on those as well.
“My understanding is that there is very little in addition to those tests available to the state because those tests that were expected two weeks ago did not arrive and are not anticipated for at least another couple of weeks,” Turner said.
Keith Grellner, KPHD Administrator, noted that Kitsap had been fairly fortunate in the number of test kits it had received thus far, but the supply coming in could dry up for a little while. As a result of the shortage of test kits, coupled with a shortage of personal protection equipment, the county has faced challenges in getting all symptomatic residents tested.
“There have been many, many people with mild symptoms that we fully suspect had COVID that could not get tested because of the shortages,” Grellner said.
Grellner said that KPHD currently had 38 staff members to perform trace and contact work, in which staff from the department follows up with a resident with a confirmed COVID-19 case and then reaches out to all of that person’s close contacts.
That number would likely shrink when the health department’s other services return full-time. Grellner said KPHD is working on a plan to increase those numbers.
On the subject of applying for a variance and reopening early, Erickson opined that Kitsap County doesn’t yet come close to qualifying for a variance since officials do not yet have a proper handle on how many testing kits exist within the county.
County commissioner Ed Wolfe said that he disagreed with Erickson’s assessment, provided the expected supply of testing kits comes in as expected and that the county could at least begin the process and the paperwork to be ready if it decides to move forward — although Kitsap does not yet meet the requirements as set forth by the governor.
“As long as we are demonstrating in any requests that we’re following the safety protocols and social distancing,” Wolfe said. “And of course Kitsap Public Health will be the first stop – without that go-ahead, this won’t happen – they will be the first stop on this.”
“Commissioner, I want to open really badly,” Erickson responded. “I would love to go for that variance as well. But until we have a handle on our testing and until we can really validate our data, it’s going to be problematic.”
Bremerton Mayor Greg Wheeler said increased talk of reopening small businesses and lifting restrictions could lead to mixed messages to the public and a relaxation of social distancing on their part. Wheeler also asked that there be greater citizen involvement in discussing the state of the pandemic in Kitsap.
“It’s a critical time to start managing expectations,” Wheeler said.