State rules enable dental and medical practices to resume

OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee cleared the way Monday for teeth cleanings, annual physicals and elective surgeries to resume throughout Washington.

The governor issued much-anticipated guidance dentists and medical practitioners must follow. The rules are intended to protect their employees and patients from exposure to coronavirus, which causes potentially deadly COVID-19.

Inslee, who announced the measures at news conference, described it as “one more step” on the path to reopening the economy and reviving public life, mostly shuttered under a stay-home order issued two months ago to blunt the virus’ spread.

And this latest action came three days after release of a report containing the first concrete measurement of the financial toll wrought by the pandemic.

It shows tax revenues came in $428.5 million below a forecast issued in February. The analysis, compiled by the state’s chief economist, covers collections mainly from March that are reported between April 11 and May 10.

Of the total, about $200 million are taxes the state Department of Revenue is allowing businesses to defer paying due to the economic crisis.

The rest of the lost tax receipts is a direct result of the lockdown of nonessential businesses, professional services and nonurgent medical and dental care, all of which generate sales and business taxes for state coffers.

Car and truck sales plummeted in March with new vehicle registrations falling 63.5 percent. Tax payments generated by restaurants, bars, and lodging establishments were 35.2 percent lower than the prior year. Sales of clothing, furniture, sporting goods, toys, books and music all fell by double-digit percentages, according to the monthly Economic and Revenue Update.

However, tax receipts from essential businesses that have not been closed, such as supermarkets and sellers of building supplies and appliances were higher in March than the prior year.

The latest figures align roughly with a preliminary analysis prepared two weeks ago by Steve Lerch, the state’s chief economist. At that time, he suggested revenue collections could be down $756 million through the end of June and nearly $3.8 billion by the end of the current budget in mid-2021.

While the state’s economy will not turn around quickly, Monday marked a stride forward as Inslee welcomed reopening of dental and medical practices and encouraged residents to not delay treatment they might need or desire.

Among the most critical requirements of his guidance is for each practice to have adequate quantities of appropriate personal protective equipment for workers. Other rules include screening patients and visitors for symptoms of the highly transmissible virus, including taking their temperatures.

Doctors and dentists must implement social-distancing measures and frequently clean and sanitize high-touch surfaces in waiting rooms, offices and treatment areas. They must craft plans of how they could expand or contract services based on whether there’s an outbreak in their community.

Statewide, the cumulative death count of COVID-19 cases was 1,002 among 18,611 cases.

On Monday, the Freedom Foundation, a conservative think tank, asserted the state is inflating the number of COVID-19 deaths and Inslee’s use of higher figures politicize its response to the pandemic.

The organization contended the actual number of people who lost their lives due to the disease may be as much as 13 percent lower than reported by the state. It cites the state Department of Health’s policy to include in its daily figure any individual who has a positive COVID-19 test and subsequently dies.

“Obviously, not every person who tests positive for COVID-19 and subsequently passes away dies because of COVID-19,” the group concluded in its report.

Inlsee on Monday said he has “no reason to doubt” the health department’s figures and would not review methodology used.

And he delivered a stinging rebuke of the Freedom Foundation, saying even if the number is high, the magnitude of the loss of life is no less.

“I’m not sure of the relevance. I guess they’re saying that would make it 887 dead and that’s OK and we should not act responsibly if there are only 887 people instead of a 1,000 people?” he said. “I’m not sure I understand that logic.”

In response, Maxford Nelson, director of labor policy for the organization, said it was “slanderous” for the governor to accuse the group of not caring of those who have died from the disease.

“Every life is precious, and people should take reasonable precautions to protect themselves and their loved ones. But the governor is wrong to dismiss our analysis, based on information from his own Department of Health, out of hand,” he said. “Inflating the numbers does nothing but further undermine trust in government.”

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