LISTEN: How Washington officials are handling a rise in COVID-19 cases | KNKX

LISTEN: How Washington officials are handling a rise in COVID-19 cases

Jun 30, 2020

Washington is among the states where COVID-19 cases are on the rise again. Over the past couple of weeks, Gov. Jay Inslee has been visiting hot spots in central and eastern parts of the state to talk about the local response.

Olympia correspondent Austin Jenkins has been covering the state's pandemic response. He talked about the latest with KNKX Morning Edition host Kirsten Kendrick. Listen to their conversation above or read the transcript below, which has been edited for clarity.

Kirsten Kendrick, KNKX: Austin, Inslee's visit to the Tri-Cities today (Tuesday) follows similar meetings in Yakima and Spokane, which have seen spikes in COVID-19 cases. What do the data tell us about infections in Washington overall?

Austin Jenkins, Olympia correspondent: Well, Kirsten, like a lot of the country, it certainly looks like cases are on the upswing in many places around the state. And this does, of course, track with the sequential reopening of the economy. It also comes after things did actually seem to flatten out in late May and into early June. But, of course, less social distancing equals more cases. And interestingly, Hal Bernton, writing in The Seattle Times this morning, says that there's not an indication that recent protests are resulting in a noticeable uptick. That could be because the chances of transmission are lower in an outdoor setting.

But if you kind of drill down on the COVID map, what you see are hot spots or at least hotter spots — central Puget Sound still, southeast Washington, where the governor has been spending some time, Spokane County. There are also though, Kirsten, counties that have seen no cases in the last couple of weeks.

We should also mention that there is more testing happening, and that could be part of why we're seeing more positive cases. But that doesn't explain all of it. And the governor has also pointed to the fact that the rate of transmission appears to be on the rise in both Western and Eastern Washington. So the bottom line is the numbers are heading in the wrong direction. But Washington state is not nearly in the dire situation at this point that many other states around the country are.

KNKX: And the rise in cases has actually prompted the governor to pause the ability for counties to move to Phase 4 of his reopening plan. Has the governor indicated he may take further action like going back to strict social distancing?

Jenkins: He is not at this point, and I imagine he'll get those questions today in the Tri-Cities. It's perhaps not surprising that he paused the advancement to Phase 4. There were eight counties that were becoming eligible to do that. But remember and recall that Phase 4 is essentially back to normal, so that is a dramatic change in behavior. With the numbers doing what they're doing, I don't think anybody was terribly surprised to see him do this.

But what's not clear, and to the point of your question, is what does the future look like? Are we in a pause, sort of, hold steady moment and then we'll get to advance? Are we on the bubble where we might have to step back? Nobody wants to go one step forward and two steps back. But I think right now we just don't have enough information and everybody's kind of waiting to see what's going to happen next.

KNKX: And you mentioned testing was happening more. Early on in the pandemic, it was not as widespread and there were concerns about supplies of protective equipment. As we see cases rising more quickly again, are those issues still front and center?

Jenkins: Those issues are still present. I don't know that they're as front and center as they have been. It's interesting — when I asked the governor about testing a few weeks ago, and he had been really hammering home on the importance of it, he pivoted and said he was at this point more concerned about mask usage. And of course, he has since issued a statewide mask mandate.

On the other hand, you talk to public health officials and they say that testing is vital. In order to test, you need to have access to PPE. So is contact tracing, and it's clear we're still building that infrastructure here. We're in a better position than we were a few weeks or a few months ago. But certainly there's still progress to be made.

KNKX: And the pandemic response, Austin, is having a big impact on the state budget. You reported recently that state agencies are preparing for furloughs. When are those starting and what will that mean for state services?

Jenkins: Yeah, they've already started. In fact, some agencies, including the governor's office, kind of got a jumpstart in this, even though we're not quite to July. Much of the governor's staff was on furlough yesterday (Monday). Department of Licensing has announced — it's already had limited office hours for getting your driver's license and whatnot, and it was by appointment only — they're going to be closing one day a week during the month of July. Department Social and Health Services, which serves a couple million people in this state, will have furlough days, limited access to services.

The best advice is if you need to avail yourself of a state service during this month, Mondays and Fridays in particular seem to be the days that they're furloughing, but not always. Call ahead, check in advance so you don't make an unnecessary trip and try to anticipate what needs you might have so that you can make that call, maybe connect with a caseworker before they're on furlough. But yes, we're seeing agencies taking those measures across the board once a week, one day a week during the month of July, and then it becomes once a month after that.