New reopening plans unveiled by state leaders earlier this month have come under fire from Kitsap County’s Board of Commissioners as well as other local government and public health officials, who say the phased strategy lacks input from local leaders and creates uncertainty for businesses unsure if they will be allowed to stay open.
In a letter to Gov. Jay Inslee on Jan. 15, Kitsap County’s three commissioners raised concerns about the state’s “Healthy Washington” roadmap, which consists of two phases that regions of the state can move between.
Breaking the state into eight regions, the state Department of Health will look at data every Friday to determine if a region can move forward and reopen some indoor dining and restore social gatherings and other activities. Kitsap is grouped with Mason, Clallam and Jefferson counties.
To move from Phase 1 to Phase 2, a region must meet four metrics, which include: a 10% decrease in the rate of new cases per 100,000 people, a 10% decrease in COVID-19 hospital admissions over the previous two weeks, an ICU occupancy rate less than 90%, and positive test rate of less than 10% in the past week.
To remain in Phase 2, regions must continue to meet at least three of the four metrics week to week. Otherwise, that region will be moved back the following Monday.
The letter by Kitsap’s commissioners critiqued the two-phase approach as confusing and disorienting, which “leaves the average citizen doubting there will ever be an end to the pandemic and a resumption of their lives in earnest.”
“Especially with no discernable difference between the two phases nor inclusion of how the rollout of the vaccines might come into play, this leaves no guarantees citizens will not be left atop a proverbial metronome, constantly vacillating between Phase 1 and 2 with the beat of every week that goes by,” the letter states.
The Healthy Washington plan was born out of concerns from local communities, Mike Faulk, a spokesman with Gov. Inslee’s office, said in an email to the Kitsap Sun. One of the main issues was that the old reopening plan didn’t consider how “interconnected” counties are.
“Additionally, health systems are interconnected regionally, where a patient from one county may end up being treated or hospitalized in another. For the most accurate and cohesive measure of the metrics and application of the reopening guidance in different communities in our state, it was decided to drop the 39 county approach and go with eight regions,” Faulk said.
North Kitsap Commissioner Rob Gelder said the governor’s plan doesn’t provide insight about how the county will finally emerge from the pandemic, especially because the roadmaps don’t involve any metrics about vaccination rates.
“It didn’t provide that hope there’s a path forward,” Gelder said in an interview with the Kitsap Sun. “Vaccination is one of the tools for reopening our society and our economy. So why was the vaccine rollout not included?”
Because it’s possible to move forward one week and then backward the next, Gelder says businesses and restaurants will suffer from whiplash and struggle to follow the rules if they aren’t sure how long services will be allowed. “It’s very difficult to plan for businesses when they are open then they are closed. They’re open, they’re closed,” he said.
Rhonda Koh, the owner of AHOY Kitsap on Highway 303, has experienced that whiplash. Koh’s indoor playground is one of the few businesses of its kind in the West Sound region and draws families from outside the county who want to host a birthday party or let their kids run off some steam.
At the outset of the pandemic, Koh closed permanently and furloughed her six employees. She spent thousands of dollars on air and surface purifiers to prepare for reopening. The playground was allowed to open for just two weeks in early November before the state ordered it closed again.
Koh said the state guidelines keep shifting and are unclear for businesses like hers that technically fall under the “indoor recreation” category. The week-by-week approval process also makes it tough for Koh to give her employees any kind of certainty when they might be able to come back to work.
“No business can plan for success under this current model,” Koh said.
Koh said she was grateful for the commissioners’ letter because it captured her feelings of fatigue with the pandemic and the struggles she’s encountered as the owner of a small business. She added that a state waiver system – whereby businesses could apply to open if they could prove they’re operating safely – would be the most helpful change for her right now.
“I believe in the science, that’s the thing, I stay home, I don’t go anywhere, I do what I feel like needs to be done,” Koh said. “But as a business owner I totally understand, it’s like survival, it’s not just our physical survival, it’s our business survival, too.”
‘We’re taking responsibility’
The commissioner’s letter also faulted state leaders for the sluggish vaccine distribution, which has relied on private health providers to enroll with the state Department of Health to receive doses. Kitsap Public Health officials have said more the county needs more providers to enroll.
“From our vantage point, if the vaccination plan was under development and required providers to opt-in, why didn’t the Department of Health proactively recruit providers mid last year?” the letter asked.
“It appears the recruitment did not begin until the vaccines were on the way to our state. And then, the responsibility fell to local public health.”
Commissioner Ed Wolfe, who represents Central Kitsap, echoed Gelder’s concerns about the vaccine rollout and said the communication between Olympia and local leaders in Kitsap has been lacking.
“I never understood from the state that Kitsap County Public Health would be responsible for rolling out vaccines,” Wolfe said. “That’s what’s happening now; we’re taking the responsibility because nothing was happening.”
Wolfe said the county is in the process of setting up its own vaccination sites in partnership with St. Michael Medical Center, Kitsap Public Health District, and the county’s Department of Emergency Management. Wolfe declined to provide details about where the sites would be located or when they would open because he wasn’t sure when vaccines will be available.
“I’m not convinced, me as one person, that we will be shipped vaccines from the state next week in order to begin inoculating residents,” Wolfe said.
Other county and local health officials have also critiqued the rollout of the “Healthy Washington” plan. The Washington State Association of Counties and Washington State Association of Local Public Health Officials sent a joint letter to the state Secretary of Health saying the recovery plans were developed without collaboration with local health officials.
“Many decisions being touted by the Governor as ‘collaborative’ have not been made in partnership with local health jurisdictions, local health officials, nor local boards of health,” the Jan. 12 letter stated. “We adamantly disagree that there has been consistent collaboration by DOH and the State with counties and local health jurisdictions.”
In the letter, local officials said that many of the state’s decisions are not supported by local public health, particularly the regions and metrics established by state leaders.
“Neither DOH nor the State of Washington did anything meaningful to actively consult or collaborate with local health jurisdiction administrators, local health officers, or local boards of health to build agreement or support for its plan to enact a regional approach and measurement metrics,” the letter stated.
The Kitsap Public Health District has also been expressing its desire to be included in discussions about state health plans for “quite a while,” administrator Keith Grellner said in an email to the Kitsap Sun.
If included in the discussions, Grellner said the health district would have preferred to use pre-existing health regions instead of the eight regions laid out by the governor’s office and would have changed how the vaccination schedule was organized by age and sector.
“As decisions — especially related to the pandemic — continue to be made without local health input and with little to no notice, we felt like we needed to express ourselves more formally,” Grellner said.
In his email, Faulk, the spokesman for Inslee, said the state “knew this would not be the most popular plan because there is no ‘most popular’ plan in a pandemic the likes of which we have not seen in a century.”
He added that the state has been in contact with local governments all year, but ultimately the decisions are made by the governor’s office.
“We can appreciate people wanting more input on specific decisions, but I would also remind that we are flexible and adapt as the pandemic goes through its progressions. That’s been the case from the beginning as things played out in 2020. If the plan is not working, we will not hesitate to adjust, but that’s not the case right now, and we will need more weeks of epidemiological data while we’re in this phase to see where things have headed,” Faulk wrote.
“We are confident in this plan, we don’t think it unduly hinders the authority of local elected officials, and we know that if our partners in the private and public sectors have valid critiques that demand attention, we can calibrate the plan.”