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Social distancing, tests, budget woes: 3 things to know about the state's coronavirus response

People walk by boarded up businesses in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood.
Parker Miles Blohm
People walk by boarded up businesses in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood.

Gov. Jay Inslee's recent announcements extending his "Stay Home, Stay Healthy" orderand keeping schools physically closed through the end of the academic year are just the latest indications that social distancing will remain the new normal for a while.

Here are three things to know about the state's COVID-19 response.

The state's social distancing measures could be extended again.

The governor's stay-at-home order is currently set to expire May 4. But it's clear from the governor's proclamation on school closures that officials are at least thinking about the possibility that the state might be dealing with the coronavirus for months.

"I encourage all K-12 schools subject to this immediately plan for the potential extension of these probititions into the summer and fall of 2020," the proclamation reads.

While there is some evidence to suggest Washington is beginning to "flatten the curve" and avoid an overwhelming surge of COVID-19 cases, health experts warn that social distancing has to be maintained and reopening has to be thought through carefully.

The virus is still circulating, so letting up could cause a big spike in cases. Dr. Anthony Chen, health director for the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, told reporters Monday that enacting social distancing was like flipping a switch to shut down everything. But he says lifting those restrictions will be more like a dimmer switch.

"So there’s going to be a lot of art here about how we turn that dimmer back up so that we can gradually allow people to go back to more normal functioning," Chen said. "But at the same time not suddenly expose a whole lot of people who are not immune to this illness."

Testing capacity is one factor in lifting restrictions

In an interview with KNKX Morning Edition host Kirsten Kendrick, Olympia correspondent Austin Jenkins said state officials have to be able to thoroughly track and isolate COVID-19 cases if they're going to lift social distancing restrictions.

"Really for them to be able to surveil what's happening, they need ubiquitous testing, widespread testing," Jenkins said. "And that's a tool that's missing from the toolkit right now."

State epidemiologist Scott Lindquist told Jenkins the state is watching for rapid testing to become available. Those tests could provide results in minutes rather than days. State leaders are also looking for the Food and Drug Administration to approve at-home testing.

"Really these measures we're doing for the moment are mitigation and a bridge until there is that more widespread testing," Jenkins said.

Economic fallout from the coronavirus will hit the state budget.

On Friday,Inslee used his veto powerto trim $445 million over the next three years from the state budget in anticipation of a fiscal crisis stemming from the response to the coronavirus. State lawmakers will get an unofficial economic forecast at the end of April.

"I think they're expecting it to be very bleak," Jenkins said, adding they're already looking at losing $3 billion to $6 billion by the end of the biennium.

Part of the issue is how much the state is spending to respond to the coronavirus. But in apost on Medium, Inslee said some of that will be covered by the Legislature's emergency allocation and aid packages approved by Congress.

The bigger problem will be an economic downturn that could be worse than the Great Recession. With many businesses shuttered for weeks on end and record unemployment, there is a high need for state services in a climate where tax revenues will likely fall dramatically. 

State lawmakers are bracing for the governor to call a special session to address some of these issues. Jenkins said that could happen closer to fall, though lawmakers are preparing to convene remotely if necessary.

To hear more about the state's coronavirus response, including the situation in state institutions such as prisons and psychiatric hospitals, listen to the full conversation with Olympia correspondent Austin Jenkins above.

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A Seattle native and former KNKX intern, Simone Alicea spent four years as a producer and reporter at KNKX. She earned her Bachelor's of Journalism from Northwestern University and covered breaking news for the Chicago Sun-Times. During her undergraduate career, she spent time in Cape Town, South Africa, covering metro news for the Cape Times.