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Governor announces COVID-19 state resources to address 'hot spot' of infections

WENATCHEE — Gov. Jay Inslee and local health officials announced Tuesday morning that the state will set up a COVID-19 incident command team in Chelan and Douglas counties.

The incident command team was established due to the high infection rate in Chelan and Douglas counties, Inslee said during a news conference Tuesday morning at Wenatchee Valley College. Both Chelan and Douglas have infection rates hovering around 500 people per 100,000 over a two-week period, among the highest in the state.

“That’s frankly the reason we came because this is one of the hot spots in the state of Washington,” Inslee said. “And it is the place we are most concerned about. It is a beautiful valley full of beautiful folks.”

The incident command team will assist the Chelan-Douglas Health District with managing the pandemic, Chelan-Douglas Health Officer Malcolm Butler said. The National Guard has also been deployed in North Central Washington to assist with testing, starting in Bridgeport today, Butler said.

They will continue testing into Chelan and Manson later this week, he said.

North Central Washington has seen great compliance when it comes to wearing masks into stores and social distancing at work, Butler said. The challenge communities are facing is people engaging in social events.

“Every single one of us has been to a park, or driven past a soccer field, or driven past a house on your street with 16 cars lined up in front of it,” he said. “This is where the disease is being transmitted. It is in social gatherings where we’re having fun.”

Photo gallery: Gov. Jay Inslee visits Wenatchee to address pandemic response

Inslee also announced that the state plans to improve access to healthcare in agricultural communities and provide more testing.

When asked about the state’s protection of agricultural workers so far, Inslee said the state has already implemented aggressive rules to protect farmworkers and H2A guest workers. The state is also taking enforcement action on those rules, he said.

“(People in) the agricultural industry, by necessity, are exposed in situations that are a lot more dangerous than a lot of other (industries),” Inslee said. “So we have tried to do everything we can to minimize the risk.”

On Saturday in Wenatchee , local activists and community organizers protested conditions for farmworkers and said the state hasn’t done enough. In particular, they highlighted the death of three employees of Gebbers Farms in Okanogan County.

As for the large amount of tourism that counties like Chelan and Okanogan are experiencing, Inslee said the state has been focused on a communication strategy.

“That’s always a fine balance, because some of these places want business too,” Inslee said. “So it’s striking that balance that is sometimes a problem.”

Butler has said in the past the state needs to do more to curb tourism in cities like Leavenworth and Chelan.

Inslee met Tuesday morning with members of the Chelan and Douglas county commissions, as well as the mayors of Wenatchee, East Wenatchee, Chelan and Leavenworth, Douglas County Commissioner Dan Sutton said.

Sutton in late May was a plaintiff in a lawsuit against Inslee’s ‘Stay Home, Stay Healthy,’ order. The lawsuit argued that the COVID-19 crisis had subsided and the need for the restrictions on businesses was over. Sutton later withdrew as a plaintiff.

Sutton said that is now water under the bridge.

“You know the fact of the matter is, COVID-19 is here, it’s real and it is part of our ecosystem now,” he said. “It will never go away, we will have to learn to open up despite of it or in light of it and figure out how to keep businesses open, whole and healthy.”

Sutton appreciates the resources the state is providing, but this is just the beginning, he said.

“We certainly need more, but we’re not complaining about what we have,” Sutton said. “We’re very thankful that we received what we have.”

Local health district receives much needed assistance from state

Dr. Malcolm Butler

Chelan-Douglas Health District

WENATCHEE — The state resources provided Tuesday are a much-appreciated assistance for the Chelan-Douglas Health District, Health Officer Malcolm Butler said.

The state Department of Health setup an incident command team in Chelan and Douglas counties, according to a news conference with Governor Jay Inslee and Butler. The Washington National Guard also was deployed to help conduct testing in North Central Washington.

The help is appreciated as no one at the Chelan-Douglas Health District has incident command training, Butler said. Also, the staff at the health district has been working full throttle since the pandemic started in March. Normally, incident command teams would work 14 days on and then 14 days off, he said.

“But nobody (at the health district) has ever run a pandemic,” Butler said, “They’re like licensing swimming and septic tanks, right?”

So for the time being, the state will manage some of the response to the pandemic, particularly the contact tracing, he said. Health district staff will then be able to go back to what they normally do for a while and receive a bit of a break.

Also, while health districts in other counties received CARE Act funding to mitigate the cost of dealing with the pandemic, the Chelan-Douglas Health District received none, Butler said.

The counties are providing some of their own CARE Act funding, Douglas County Commissioner Dan Sutton said. Sutton is also the chair of the Chelan-Douglas Board of Health.

Butler isn’t sure entirely why that was the case, he said. But it may have to do with the fact that the funding was for health departments under individual counties and the Chelan-Douglas Health District is a two-county district.

“The health district has not been able to do its own testing,” Butler said. “In most counties the health district has been doing a lot of testing.”

Also part of the state’s efforts on Tuesday, the Department of Health is partially funding the salary of Dr. Peter Houck, of Cashmere, he said. Houck has a background as a pandemic specialist for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and will provide consulting service to the health department, Butler said.

“So having someone like Dr. Houck who actually has done that in this career, he can come and teach us,” Butler said. “And he could help coordinate where we should do testing.”

Postmaster general pauses USPS service cuts amid outcry, as U.S. Democrats ratchet up pressure

WASHINGTON, D.C.— Postmaster General Louis DeJoy on Tuesday suspended all mail service changes until after the November election, bowing to an outcry by Democrats that the moves appeared to be an attempt to boost President Donald Trump’s re-election chances.

The reversal follows complaints that the cuts could slow the handling of mail-in ballots, which could account for as many as half of all votes cast in the Nov. 3 election as the coronavirus pandemic raises fears of crowds.

Critics have accused the Republican president, trailing Democratic challenger Joe Biden in opinion polls, of trying to hobble the Postal Service to suppress mail-in voting.

Trump has repeatedly and without evidence said that an increase in mail-in ballots would lead to a surge in fraud, although Americans have long voted by mail.

Planned changes to the mail service that threatened to slow mail delivery — and in some cases, already have — include reductions in overtime, restrictions on extra mail transportation trips, and new mail sorting and delivery policies, enacted in an attempt to cut costs.

“I am suspending these initiatives until after the election is concluded,” DeJoy said in a statement, adding that the changes were to “avoid even the appearance of any impact on election mail.”

The White House distanced itself from the controversy.

“No, I was not involved,” Trump said when asked if he had any involvement in the decision not to go forward with the changes at this time. He spoke to reporters in Yuma, Arizona, where he was visiting a border barrier.

White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said Trump never directed postal operational changes that would slow mail deliveries.

U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi called DeJoy’s announcement inadequate and said she would push ahead with legislation later this week to aid the Postal Service.

“This pause only halts a limited number of the postmaster’s changes, does not reverse damage already done, and alone is not enough to ensure voters will not be disenfranchised by the president” in the election, Pelosi said in a statement.

“The House will be moving ahead with our vote this Saturday,” she said. The legislation is expected to contain provisions to prevent the post office from reducing service levels below what they were in January.

DeJoy, a major political donor and ally of Trump, assumed the job in June. His recent operational changes had brought widespread criticism.

Mark Dimondstein, president of the American Postal Workers Union, praised “the postmaster’s reversal of these policies” but added that the Postal Service was still “in immediate need of $25 billion in COVID-related financial relief.”

The coronavirus pandemic has placed increased pressure on the already ailing Postal Service as it gears up to handle increased volume from the anticipated surge in mail-in ballots in November.

Trump said last week he was against Democratic efforts to include funds for the Postal Service and election infrastructure in coronavirus relief legislation because he wanted to limit mail-in voting during the pandemic.

The president kept up his attack on mail voting on Tuesday, speculating that delayed results could mean that the election would need to be held a second time.

“It will end up being a rigged election or they will never come out with an outcome,” Trump told reporters on Tuesday. “They’ll have to do it again, and nobody wants that.”

One in four ballots in 2016 was cast by mail and Trump himself votes that way.

In a complaint filed in federal court, Washington and 13 other U.S. states accused DeJoy of ignoring congressionally mandated procedures by imposing “transformative” changes at the Postal Service.

“Voting by mail is safe and promotes no partisan advantage,” the complaint said. “The states are entitled to a declaration that the ‘transformative’ changes are unlawful.”

Several congressional Republicans this week had dismissed Democrats’ concerns as a political attack on Trump.

The reversal followed a lengthy call by the postal board of governors on Monday night, two people briefed on the matter said. They said the board told DeJoy to focus only on election integrity between now and Election Day, not operational changes.

DeJoy is scheduled to testify on Friday before a Republican-led Senate committee, and before a Democratic-led House committee on Monday.

East Wenatchee Police Department to require body cameras

EAST WENATCHEE — Body cameras will soon be mandatory for all East Wenatchee police officers.

The City Council on Tuesday approved entering into a new five-year contract with Axon, the company that makes the cameras. The cost would be about $90,000 over those five years — $10,830 the first year and $19,790 each year after.

That price includes 19 cameras with vest mounts, docking/charging stations, online video management, cloud storage space and some training from the company. The equipment would be leased, and the cameras would be replaced every two and a half years.

Police Chief Rick Johnson said the department currently has 10 body cameras, but officers are not required to wear them.

The Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs conducted a review of the department last year that noted insufficient training and poor communication between the police administration and officers. One recommendation was that the department either eliminate its body cameras or make their usage more consistent.

Johnson took over in June to replace former Police Chief Randy Harrison, who retired at the end of last year.

The department is currently about a year and a half into a five-year contract with Axon, but the new contract would replace that.

East Wenatchee Police Department is the only law enforcement agency in Chelan and Douglas counties with body cameras, though Johnson said others are heading in that direction.

“It would be a really good thing for us to be on the front side of it instead of playing catch up,” he told the council Tuesday.

Cameras improve department transparency, credibility and public perception, Johnson said, and both officers and citizens tend to behave better when they know they’re being recorded. This results in a reduction in false complaints and quicker resolution of complaints that are made, he said.

Footage can also be used as evidence in court and provide learning opportunities as officers review it, Johnson said.

Some potential downsides to the cameras include the fact that they produce more records to maintain, as well as privacy concerns, he said. However, an officer may choose to turn off the camera in sensitive situations, like in someone’s home, if the person requests it.

Johnson said he believes the pros outweigh the cons. For instance, he said the cameras could save the city a lot of money by avoiding lawsuits over officers’ use of force.

Additional expenses Johnson said he’d like the council to consider in the future would be for sensors that could activate the body camera if the officer’s gun was removed from the holster or if the patrol car lights were activated. The department could also eventually upgrade its Tasers so the body camera would be activated when the stun gun is used.

East Wenatchee’s police vehicles do not include dash cameras, though other local law enforcement agencies have them.

Johnson said dash cameras could be added to the lease with Axon for an additional cost, but he thinks body cameras are a better option.

“Just having worked under both systems, if you’re going to choose one or the other, this is the one that is more likely to capture your use of force, your demeanor, your conversation, all that type of stuff,” he told the council. “It has its limitations the same way a dash cam has limitations. I think probably the upside to body cam, based on my experience, would outweigh the upside to dash cam.”

East Wenatchee officers will be allowed to take vehicles home

EAST WENATCHEE — To implement its new body camera policy for police officers, the city of East Wenatchee had to make a deal.

Teamsters Local 760, the union representing the officers, asked for a take-home vehicle policy in return.

Police Chief Rick Johnson said some may not understand why department equipment, like body cameras, would need to be negotiated.

“The union’s perspective, of course, is it’s a change in work conditions and you’ve got to negotiate it,” he told the City Council on Tuesday.

The council approved the agreement, which will require the police department to provide take-home vehicles to all eligible officers by January 2024. Johnson said the department, which has 16 patrol officers, will only need one additional vehicle to implement the policy.

Officers must have worked at the department for a year and live within 15 miles of City Hall to get a take-home vehicle. The vehicle can only be stored at the officer’s home, and the officer must begin his or her shift at the police station.

All officers except one live within 15 miles of City Hall, Johnson said, and the union understood that the policy wouldn’t cover the one that doesn’t.

Johnson said a study by the city of Tacoma and its consulting firm found that, on average, shared vehicles lasted 20-26 months while assigned vehicles lasted 60 months. Shared vehicles could cost up to $8,400 a year in repairs, the study showed, compared to $1,375 a year for assigned vehicles.

“If you are assigned something, then you treat it like it’s yours,” Johnson told the council. “If it is a pool car that sits out there and runs 24 hours a day, it is human nature that there does not seem to be a lot of personal responsibility in that car that they’re sharing with everybody else.”

Take-home vehicles also improve morale and increase the ability for officers to provide backup for one another, according to the study.

No major changes planned for Wenatchee postal facility

WENATCHEE — The U.S. Postal Service is planning no significant changes to the Wenatchee postal facility, according to a spokesman for the USPS.

Postal Service spokesman Ernie Swanson said Tuesday the Postmaster General Louis DeJoy’s announcement to suspend all cost-cutting and efficiency measures until after the election had some impact statewide, but really none on Wenatchee.

“We weren’t removing collection boxes in Wenatchee. We weren’t laying off anybody. We weren’t closing offices. We weren’t reducing hours. None of that stuff. I would say the impact on an area like Wenatchee is not that great,” Swanson said.

Rumors are the Postal Service is removing a mail sorter from Wenatchee, but Swanson said even if that were the case, it would not affect mail service in the Wenatchee area because there is more than one sorter.

Swanson said there should not be any impact in Wenatchee due to the loss of a mail sorter.

“Mail volume is down. It was down prior to the pandemic as more people switched to pay their bills online and send correspondence online and that sort of thing,” Swanson said. “Then, the pandemic caused it to go down even further. We have the equipment in place at each of our processing centers so we can continue to operate efficiently.”

The removal of a mail sorter in Wenatchee could be one of two things, he said, either it was no longer needed or it was time for a replacement. In some cases, mail sorters are being removed and replaced by newer equipment.

Swanson was not sure the case in Wenatchee. Removal of a mail sorter can be a cost-cutting measure.

“It’s not like a big return on investment. We can use the floor space either now or later for additional floor space, if necessary. It’s something of a cost-cutting measure but that’s not the overall goal,” he said. “It’s to continue to provide a good level of service for the customers.”

If removing a piece of equipment had a significant impact on customers, Swanson said they would not do it.

While there were no mailboxes removed from the Wenatchee area, there were some removed statewide, he said.

“Generally what we were doing was looking at locations where we had more than one collection box sitting side by side. In some cases, we had three or four right next to each other. The volume of first-class mail has been going down for some years,” Swanson said.

“It got even more significant since the pandemic. What we do is remove all but one of the collection boxes or leave two, depending on the mail volume. Our customers that are accustomed to going to one spot to drop off their mail can still have that opportunity.”