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Chelan, Douglas counties remain in Phase 3 — barely

WENATCHEE — Chelan and Douglas counties qualified by the slimmest of margins to remain in Phase 3 of the “Healthy Washington” pandemic reopening plan. Relieved community leaders thanked the public for their cooperation and a chamber director urged residents to get vaccinated.

Gov. Jay Inslee announced Monday that only three counties — Cowlitz, Pierce and Whitman — would move back to Phase 2 of the state’s reopening plan. The rest, including Chelan and Douglas counties, will remain in Phase 3.

“It was a breath-holder there for a bit,” said Dan Sutton, chair of the Chelan-Douglas Board of Health and a Douglas County commissioner.

Dan Sutton

Chelan-Douglas Board of Health chairman

With the uncertainty cleared and the announcement made, Sutton said they are pleased to be staying in Phase 3. It would not have been possible without the community’s cooperation, he said.

The Wenatchee Valley Chamber of Commerce also thanked the community for remaining vigilant against COVID-19, said Shiloh Burgess, chamber executive director.

“Now that vaccines are open to anyone over 16 beginning Thursday, we hope those who are willing and able, will choose to get vaccinated to help us stay healthy and open,” Burgess said.

Shiloh Burgess

This announcement comes after a last-minute change on Friday when the governor updated criteria so that counties would only roll back a phase when they failed both COVID-19 metrics in the reopening plan. Both Chelan and Douglas counties remain in Phase 3 by passing one of the metrics.

Counties will be reevaluated again in three weeks — on May 3. Counties must qualify individually, based on metrics according to their population size. Douglas County is considered a small county, while Chelan County is considered a large county.

Looking ahead, the governor’s office has not shared the crucial next step or phase, according to Kevin Overbay, Chelan County commissioner and health board vice chair.

“I’d like to see Phase 3 become the baseline that we look at; and then, we move either forward or we stay at Phase 3,” Overbay said. “I would also like to see it again come back to the local level and allow each local community working with their health department and their elected officials to make those decisions as we move forward.”

Kevin Overbay

Chelan County commissioner

The Washington Hospitality Association was disappointed to see any counties roll back to Phase 2, said Anthony Anton, president and CEO of the association representing more than 6,000 members of the hospitality industry. Anton said in an email that they do not believe this decision will contain the spread of the virus as people can still cross county lines.

According to the revised metrics, counties with a population larger than 50,000 roll back to Phase 2 if the county has both:

  • More than 200 new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 over 14 days
  • More than five new COVID-19 hospitalizations per 100,000 per seven days

Smaller counties with a population less than 50,000 roll back to Phase 2 if they have:

  • More than 100 new COVID-19 cases over 14 days or
  • More than three new COVID-19 hospitalizations over seven days

Chelan County had 199.6 new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 between March 3 and April 2, according to the state Department of Health report, which met the under 200 metric. The hospitalization rate was 6.3 per 100,000 between March 24 and March 30, which exceeded the rate.

Douglas County had 115 new COVID-19 cases between March 3 and April 2, according to the state report, which exceeded the rate. The county had one new COVID-19 hospitalization between March 24 and March 30, which kept the county in Phase 3.

Both counties would have rolled back to Phase 2 if the governor had not updated the criteria on Friday.

Find the state Department of Health’s COVID-19 recovery report here: wwrld.us/roadmap.

Nick's Bricks is back — and so are the smiles
  • 2 min to read
World photo/Luke Hollister 

Beau Montoya, 7, checks out a Lego Star Wars Imperial Star Destroyer. The Lego creation, which was about as big as Beau, was part of the Saturday Nick's Bricks event at Pybus Public Market. 

WENATCHEE — In a galaxy not so far away, children’s jaws dropped as they gazed at Lego spaceships. “I love all the Star Wars things,” said 7-year-old Beau Montoya while at Saturday’s Nick’s Bricks event inside Pybus Public Market.

Other favorites of Beau include “that guy fighting Darth Vader” and a multi-colored Lego transformer. “I love ‘em,’” he said.

Beau was one of many excited children at the annual Lego gathering, which switched to a walkthrough to-go style giveaway this year due to COVID-19 safety precautions.

In previous years, children built their own Lego sets before heading out. This year, they lined up to grab a mixed Lego bag of their choice before meandering between sets of cities, statues and various otherworldly creatures.

World photo/Luke Hollister 

Sadie Heneghen, 4, takes a long look at a Lego city.

Young visitors also got brick-shaped cookies and a yellow hard hat.

Nick’s Bricks was named in 2018 after Nicholas “Nick” Vitulli, a 24-year-old who had a love for creativity, curiosity and, of course, Legos. Nick lost his life while hiking in Africa, and the event is meant to keep his memory and passion for imagination alive.

Nick’s Bricks usually goes through at least 1,500 pounds of Legos, said event organizer Karen Rutherford. It is really fun, she said.

A few of the new Lego creations on display Saturday included an Eiffel Tower, a Statue of Liberty, a Millennium Falcon and a Death Star, she said. To make these sets, Rutherford creates a parts list and buys individual pieces over the course of a couple years until she has all the parts needed.

World photo/Luke Hollister 

Karen Rutherford, an event organizer, sets up a display.

Wows and whoas could be heard throughout the morning as children spotted some of the biggest Star Wars-themed displays.

A happy event is a good description of Nick’s Bricks, said Kevin Vitulli, Nick’s father. The goal is to put smiles on peoples faces.

Everybody likes Legos, he said.

World photo/Luke Hollister 

Lego master builder Diego Tornabene prepares a LEGO dragon.

Nick was very creative, loved music and enjoyed playing on his own when he was young, he said. Even 24-year-old Nick had Legos in his apartment, “tons and tons of Lego builds all around,” he said.

Organizers prepared 600 bags worth of Legos, plus extra minifigures to give away in case they ran out of bags. A couple dozen children who had been waiting early in line could be seen at 9:59 a.m., eager for the event to open in a minute.

2020’s Nick’s Bricks had to be cancelled the day before due to COVID, said Jayne Vitulli. With many children having a tough last year, “finally we can come out and do something,” she said.

World photo/Luke Hollister 

Tobias Valleskey, 4, says thank you after picking out his favorite Lego bag. 

Jayne said she loves putting on the event and is thrilled to do it. Nick’s Bricks “honors our son in such a happy and fun way,” she said.

World photo/Luke Hollister 

A picture of Nicholas “Nick” Vitulli on a display table at Nick's Bricks, Saturday at Pybus Public Market. Nick loved Legos.

World photo/Luke Hollister 

Children wait in line to check out displays of Legos Saturday at the Nick's Bricks event in Pybus Public Market. The event gave kids to-go bags of Legos and led them through a one-way path flanked by various Lego creations on display.

A place for pygmy rabbits: Gift of land near Quincy helps in species recovery

QUINCY — A new gift of land to The Nature Conservancy, 282 acres near Quincy, will help secure a future for the endangered Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit.

The land will become part of The Nature Conservancy’s existing Beezley Hills Preserve.

The Nature Conservancy has an active partnership with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to conserve pygmy rabbits by providing suitable habitat and release sites, engaging volunteers to assist with pygmy rabbit conservation and release efforts, and offering temporary housing for staff and researchers at the Moses Coulee Field Station.

The pygmy rabbit is the smallest rabbit species in North America. It is mostly gray, but can be brown. It was emergency-listed as endangered in 2001 and has remained that way since.

What’s best for agriculture is best for the pygmy rabbit — they like deep soil and dense vegetation, said WDFW biologist and pygmy rabbit coordinator Jon Gallie. While human colonization initially drove out the Columbia Basin population, the most recent threats to the species are disease, brush fires and drought.

The Pearl Hill fire in June 2020 seared three years of release efforts, two breeding enclosures, four acclimation pens, 100 square miles of habitat and half of all Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits.

That’s why the new donation is so valuable, said Nature Conservancy media relations manager Robin Stanton. It didn’t burn.

“It’s super, super important habitat now, because it’s high quality habitat that was not damaged by fire,” she said.

The land was donated by Peter Lancaster, lifelong pygmy rabbit enthusiast, and the estate of Paul Schuster.

Lancaster grew up in East Wenatchee, working in the orchards.

“I just loved rabbits. I loved whitetail jackrabbits, I loved cottontails, because I could hike to the sage just east of our house, and I spent a lot of time walking around.”

He was 12 the first time he saw a pygmy rabbit.

In the ’90s, Lancaster started volunteering for the Department of Fish & Wildlife, conducting rabbit surveys, he said. After a number of years, he started doing this independently, twice a month, reporting his findings to contacts he had made over time.

More often than not he found nothing, he said. But when he found some old droppings near Lynch Coulee, he returned to the area until he found an active burrow.

It was the first new colony of Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits discovered in 30 years, he said.

What’s more, the chunk of land came up for sale the day he found the rabbits on them, he said, subdivided into 40-acre sections.

Lancaster’s first move was bringing the land to the attention of the Department of Fish & Wildlife and The Nature Conservancy, he said. But both have months-long land acquisition processes, and the property owner would sell it privately before he awaited their surveys.

So, Lancaster bought the land himself.

“Owning land wasn’t that important to me. I just wanted the rabbits preserved. But no one could really act fast enough, and I could. So I did,” he said.

The enormous chunk of land wasn’t cheap, he said. That’s where Schuster came in. An old kayaking buddy and fellow conservationist, Lancaster asked if he would go in on half.

While Schuster was a big believer in conservation, he hadn’t been particularly intrigued by pygmy rabbits before, Lancaster said.

“He did it as a favor to me, which tells you a lot about him. He was that way,” he said.

Since 1998, Lancaster and Schuster’s property has been used for pygmy rabbit conservation, Stanton said. They built a breeding enclosure on it which bolstered the population by several hundred members until it was left in ruin by 2017’s Sutherland Canyon fire.

Having healed since then, it’s now some of the most valuable land on the preserve. Winter surveys by WDFW indicated 38 active burrows on the property.

“It’s really encouraging they moved across Section 8 and are taking hold, and currently it’s the largest known population of pygmy rabbits in Grant County,” Lancaster said.

Schuster died in February 2020 at the age of 57 due to health complications, Lancaster said. In his will he left his half of the property to The Nature Conservancy.

Schuster purchased the land as a favor and paid property taxes for 22 years, Lancaster said. While conservation was already being done on the land, Lancaster wanted to honor his partner by permanently devoting the land to that purpose.

In March 2021, Lancaster donated the entire 282 acres.

Lancaster never felt like he owned it anyway, he said. It’s for the rabbits and for the people. He was simply a caretaker.

The pygmy rabbit is particularly interesting among the species native to central Washington’s shrub-steppe, he said, as the only thing it needs to survive is soil and sagebrush. It doesn’t even require water, as it gets enough moisture from the sage.

“It doesn’t need anything except simply a place to live, which in perfect conditions means deep soil, and it will thrive, and that animal is threatened with extinction,” Lancaster said. “I find that kind of strange in a lot of ways.”

Pygmy rabbits are too small for people to eat, Lancaster said. They don’t damage the land they live in. They pose no threat to livestock, and can coexist with them.

In recent years, fires destroyed sagebrush habitat to a degree that Lancaster hadn’t seen in his entire life, he said.

Proper habitat, such as Lancaster and Schuster’s donation, is all they need for long-term survival, he said.

“They don’t need anything but soil and sage,” he said. “But if they don’t have that they don’t live.”

US urges pause in use of J&J COVID-19 vaccine over blood clot concerns

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Federal health officials said Tuesday that they were urging a pause in the use of Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine after reports of six serious blood clots.

The announcement is a severe blow to the U.S. vaccination campaign, which has counted on public faith in the rapidly developed inoculations and growing supplies in order to protect Americans from the coronavirus and bring an end to the pandemic.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has scheduled an emergency meeting for Wednesday.

“Until that process is complete, we are recommending a pause in the use of this vaccine out of an abundance of caution,” said a joint statement from Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the CDC, and Dr. Peter Marks, director of the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research. “This is important, in part, to ensure that the healthcare provider community is aware of the potential for these adverse events and can plan for proper recognition and management due to the unique treatment required with this type of blood clot.”

The mass vaccination site at the Town Toyota Center in Wenatchee has primarily dispensed the two-dose vaccine from Pfizer. Confluence Health’s vaccination clinic at Central Washington Hospital has also been focusing on the Pfizer vaccine.

Columbia Valley Community Health has given doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine as a part of a federal allocation program. CVCH has been connecting with agricultural employers to provide the Johnson & Johnson vaccine since a single-dose shot is more effective to vaccinate hard-to-reach populations like farmworkers.

There are no changes to federal guidance on the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

Unlike those two, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine requires only one shot and does not need to be stored at extremely cold temperatures, making officials optimistic that it could be administered and transported more easily. Roughly 7 million Americans have already received a dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

However, the New Jersey-based company has been battling perceptions that its vaccine is less effective than others, as well as the revelation that millions of doses produced by a Baltimore factory had to be thrown out because of quality problems. The latest announcement will likely create an even greater cloud at a time when health officials have been struggling to persuade hesitant Americans to get the first shot available to them.

Johnson & Johnson said it was aware of the reports of blood clots and was working with officials on the matter.

“At present, no clear causal relationship has been established between these rare events and the Janssen COVID-19 vaccine,” the company said in a statement, referring to the division that developed the vaccine. “We continue to work closely with experts and regulators to assess the data and support the open communication of this information to healthcare professionals and the public.”

Schuchat and Marks said that six women between the ages of 18 and 48 developed a “rare and severe” blood clot called cerebral venous sinus thrombosis six to 13 days after receiving a Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Schuchat and Marks said the clots can be difficult to treat.

“Usually, an anticoagulant drug called heparin is used to treat blood clots,” they said. “In this setting, administration of heparin may be dangerous, and alternative treatments need to be given.”

They added that “these adverse events appear to be extremely rare” and “COVID-19 vaccine safety is a top priority for the federal government.”

Scattered cases of such clots have also arisen in Europe among recipients of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine, leading several countries to restrict use of that shot to older people. In Britain, residents under 30 will be given the choice of other vaccines as a precautionary measure.

However, the European Union’s drugs regulator has ruled that the benefits of the AstraZeneca vaccine, as a generally safe and highly effective guard against COVID-19, outweigh the risks. It has not recommended any age restrictions for recipients.

AstraZeneca says it intends to apply for emergency-use authorization of its vaccine in the U.S.

Wenatchee World reporter Oscar Rodriguez contributed to this report.

Douglas PUD Commission passes power delivery rate policy

EAST WENATCHEE — The Douglas County PUD Commission on Monday approved a new rate structure that governs the cost of bringing power from external sources into the county for new large customers.

The approval comes after several meetings with local elected officials who expressed concern about the power delivery rate’s potential effects on economic growth in the county.

PUD commissioners heard a few additional submitted public comments in their meeting Monday afternoon. In a short discussion before the rate was approved, Commissioner Ron Skagen and General Manager Gary Ivory both said the rate will be fair and beneficial to customers.

“We’re excited to get this rate in place so we can begin serving customers,” Ivory said in the meeting. “We feel like it’s a very competitive rate when comparing it to other Washington state rates in this class.”

The power delivery rate policy stems from a change the PUD commission made last year that said any new large power users in the county would have to get their power from the wholesale market, rather than the PUD-owned Wells Dam.

The power will be purchased from external sources, brought in across the PUD’s transmission lines and delivered to the user’s facility in Douglas County.

The cost of that service, also called a wheeling rate, was set in the meeting Monday. It takes effect May 1, Ivory said.

The rate is a complex formula that includes several fixed and variable factors. The net cost would be around $0.046 per kilowatt hour, including power costs, the PUD said. It will also increase around 2.3% a year to keep up with the utility’s inflating labor and material costs.

The commission opted for an 11% rate of return, which the utility would apply toward future infrastructure improvements or other unexpected costs, officials said.

The policy will apply to a customer in any industry who uses more than around 1.5 megawatts. It wouldn’t affect an average residential customer’s rates.

The rate wasn’t developed for any specific customer, but much of the conversation around it has been focused on Microsoft’s planned data center. That’s partly because the company has already begun filing building permits.

It’s also due to the project’s scope: Building permits show the first of three proposed buildings to be valued at $409 million.

And while the facility’s power consumption hasn’t been finalized, Microsoft has asked the PUD whether a 180 MW load could be accommodated. The rest of Douglas County’s power usage totals around 130 MW.

Since Microsoft would have to buy power on the wholesale market, its load won’t cut into the Wells Dam capacity that powers the rest of the county.

The power delivery rate policy was introduced in January. Two rate hearings were held in February and March to collect public feedback. Two additional meetings were held last week after the Chelan Douglas Regional Port Authority and a group of other public officials requested further public discussions.

Commissioner Skagan said the newly approved rate policy will allow Microsoft and other future customers room for growth in the county.

“We believe it will be in your best interest to be here in Douglas County for years and years to come,” he said in the meeting. “We believe that this rate will be good for you, it will be good for Douglas County, and your development in Douglas County will be good for ratepayers and citizens.”