County joins regional group in reopening plan

Island County has joined San Juan, Skagit and Whatcom counties following new state guidance.

Island County has joined San Juan, Skagit and Whatcom counties as part of a regional grouping in a new statewide reopening plan, which went into effect Monday.

At the same time, a pharmacy on Whidbey Island had to postpone COVID-19 vaccination appointments for older people after the state directed that health care workers had to be vaccinated before providers could move on to the Phase B1 population.

All eight regions in the state are currently in Phase 1, which prohibits dining and gathering indoors but does make allowances for private events at entertainment venues and appointment-based fitness.

Though county Public Health officials are hesitant to say when Island County’s region, referred to as “North,” will move into Phase 2, the state Department of Health announced that all regions will stay in the first phase until at least Jan. 18.

There are four new metrics, or standards, that must be met to advance to Phase 2. These are a decreasing trend in the two-week rate of COVID-19 cases per 100,000, a decreasing trend in the two-week rate of new COVID-19 hospital admission rates per 100,000, ICU occupancy of less than 90 percent and a COVID-19 test positivity rate of less than 10 percent.

Island County Assessment and Healthy Communities Director Theresa Sanders said being grouped with three other counties in the state’s reopening plan has its pros and cons.

The regional approach can be more realistic than county-by-county, because of the level of interaction between surrounding counties.

“I think we saw that,” Sanders said. “When Island County was in Phase 3, people came here because things were open.”

She added that the new metrics will be evaluated every Friday. At this time, she doesn’t want to speculate when the North region might move into Phase 2.

“Compared to some other regions, our test positivity metric is better than a lot of regions,” she said, pointing out that since mid-December, there has been a slight decrease in the rate of cases recorded in the county.

As of Jan. 11, there were 1,041 cases recorded in Island County.

In the last month, the COVID-19 death toll has risen from 18 to 22. Sanders pointed out that 20 of the 22 deaths were associated with long-term care facilities.

There are no outbreaks that she is currently aware of, although there have been some cases in childcare facilities.

An epidemiological report from December shows that Oak Harbor residents make up 55 percent of cases. The 20-39 age range group accounts for the highest percentage of cases in the county.

Since last Friday, Island County Public Health began including probable cases with a positive antigen test in case count totals. Antigen tests, Sanders explained, can have more rapid outcomes and are sometimes more readily available, but are not great for asymptomatic individuals to take.

Sanders said it is difficult to tell yet if the most recent holidays had an effect on the county’s case numbers.

“We’d still like to see them lower than they are, but maybe people followed the guidance,” she said. “A lot of people I talked to had quiet holidays, although probably not everybody did.”

Most of the county’s health care workers, first responders and long-term care facility members have received their doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. As of Jan. 8, 1,170 doses had been given, according to a press release. WhidbeyHealth and Island Drug have been providing the vaccinations to people who qualify in the A1 and A2 groups.

“Public health has not done vaccination on this level since during polio,” Sanders said. “And they’re trying to do it fairly.”

Before moving to the next phase of vaccinations — for people in the 1B group — the state Department of Health has directed some counties to help neighboring counties get their health care workers vaccinated, which is the case with Island County.Island County will be helping to vaccinate Skagit County health care workers.

Aaron Syring, owner of Island Drug, said vaccine supplies will be rerouted to help Skagit County.

Vaccines for people in the 1B group — those over 70 or those over 50 in multi generational households — will have to wait, most likely a few weeks, before receiving their doses.

Appointments for eligible individuals in the 1B group that were already made with Island Drug have been pushed back two weeks. At this time, new appointments cannot be made on the website, since the 1B rollout has been paused.

“We recognize that people were really excited about 1B opening up,” Sanders said. “COVID vaccination is going to be a real practice of patience.”

She cautioned that vaccination isn’t going to make an impact and bring down case rates right away.

“Vaccines being here is a definite bright spot for sure,” Sanders said. “We just want to be mindful that immediately, vaccination isn’t changing the scenario in terms of what we need to do as a community — social distancing, washing hands and wearing a mask.”