A member of the surgery team at WhidbeyHealth Medical Center has tested positive for COVID-19, resulting in the postponement of all non-emergency surgeries.
At the same time, there’s been a surge of COVID-19 cases in Island County, including clusters at two businesses and the spread of the virus within families.
The exposure of staff and patients was limited to people who were within the WhidbeyHealth operating room Sept. 22-24, according to the hospital district.
The hospital employee reported symptoms that developed while at work, although WhidbeyHealth has determined the virus was contracted outside of work.
Nic Wildeman, a spokesperson for WhidbeyHealth, said the list of employees who are categorized as being exposed to the ill employee continues to get smaller and smaller.
The hospital took a “broad brush approach,” as Wildeman described it, in contacting people. At first all employees who were in the operating room were a concern. But when it was determined some of them hadn’t even been in contact with the affected member of the surgery team, those people were able to return to work.
Wildeman said exposure is being defined as being within six feet of someone for a 15-minute period. Walking past somebody in the hall is not classified as exposure to the virus.
Staff who may have been affected were tested for the virus. Employees will be continuously tested every three to five days. Patients who may have been exposed have been provided information regarding available testing services.
Elective surgeries have been postponed until Oct. 7, although Wildeman said there’s a possibility the operating room might be open to these types of surgeries earlier than planned.
“We’ve taken a very cautious approach to that,” Wildeman said.
He defined elective surgeries as something that won’t worsen anyone’s medical condition if delayed for a brief period of time.
The operating room remains open to emergency surgeries. Wildeman is advising people not to delay getting the medical attention they need.
“It’s important not to delay getting your health problems taken care of,” he said. “Don’t wait. Call your primary care physician.”
On Monday, the hospital began limiting the number of support people that a patient can bring with them on a clinic visit. The West Wind Cafe and Gift Shop was also closed to the public.
The latest COVID case numbers in Island County indicate a small spike that could be a result of Labor Day activities, Island County Public Health Director Keith Higman said.
Higman said there were a total of 281 cases recorded in the county as of Sept. 16. By Sept. 28, that number had jumped to 316, an increase of 35 cases in 12 days.
In the most recent cases, there has been familial associations. And the bigger the family, the more cases. In one situation, one person who had the virus infected eight family members.
“A couple of the families did travel to places in the state where the case rate is much higher than it is here,” Higman said. “Travel does potentially increase your risk of exposure, especially if it’s travel that’s not essential.”
He added that people could be letting their guards down and going to social or family gatherings, something he advises against.
The county’s public health department has been working with WhidbeyHealth and started contact tracing this past weekend. This has involved contacting the people who may have been exposed to the infected hospital employee.
This process, which will continue for two weeks, is no different than any other case the public health department has worked with, Higman said.
“We have not been informed of any additional positive cases in their facility,” he said.
Island County Public Health is currently investigating clusters — defined as more than one case of COVID — in two places of employment where there was not exposure to the general public. Because there wasn’t a risk of exposure to the general public, Higman said he could not comment on the two places of employment where the clusters occurred.
And although people might be tired of hearing it, Higman said he recommends continuing to mask up to prevent the spread of the virus.