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People experience frustration as they seek COVID-19 vaccine

WENATCHEE — Residents across Chelan and Douglas counties have experienced a high level of frustration in their attempts to receive vaccines against COVID-19.

It has been a journey trying to get vaccinated, said Linda Herrington, 67, of Wenatchee. Herrington and others said they were able to receive the vaccine at the Town Toyota Center this week, but it took quite a bit of effort. Carol Wardell said she’s still concerned, despite receiving the vaccine, about more inaccessible populations getting it

“My husband and I were both there and I saw a lot of cars, a lot of people I knew,” Wardell said. “I didn’t see one Hispanic member of our community and that bugs me.”

The whole system is geared toward people who can work a computer, Wardell said. The phone system is also crazy, she said. She called someone on Monday and it took the entire day to get a phone call back. It isn’t reasonable to expect large portions of the population to wait all day.

Charlotte Brody, 80 of East Wenatchee, said she doesn’t understand why, if her airline can save her information and alert her when a flight becomes available, the state Department of Health’s website can’t do the same with vaccinations. She also has complaints about the phone system.

“If they were to put it right there on the (phone) message saying, ‘This is the date we’re out of vaccines, please call back on this date,’ it would save people a lot of trouble,” Brody said.

People have also struggled with who they should contact about getting vaccinated, such as the health district, their doctor or a local pharmacy, Herrington said. She was first told by friends at square dancing that Columbia Valley Community Health (CVCH) was doing vaccines, so she called the clinic.

Herrington waited on hold for 50 minutes, but she was scheduled to get vaccinated on Thursday, she said.

“So I thought, ‘Yeah, it’s done! I just have to wait a few days to get it,’” Herrington said.

Then on Tuesday morning, she got an email saying the clinic was changing her appointment to next week. She went on the Town Toyota Center website on Tuesday and found they had extra slots, signed up and got vaccinated.

Her fellow square dancing partners also had their CVCH appointments postponed and tried to do the same thing, but all the other slots at the Town Toyota Center had filled.

Alana and Dan Mcialwain, both 74 of Leavenworth, managed to get vaccinated this week after months of effort, Alana McialWain said.

“And you know, we’ve been on this for, probably three months, working on it all of the time,” Alana Mcialwain said. “And fortunately, we were able to get a confirmation (Sunday), so it’s good for us. But I still worry about the other hundreds or thousands of elders who don’t have someone to help them with a computer.”

The Mcialwains’ dining room was set up as a command center on Sunday, when vaccine appointments were scheduled to go live, Alana Mcialwain said. They had three laptops open and ready and had spent the week practicing filling out the appointment application.

She said it was important for her and her husband to get vaccinated so they could see their 15 grandchildren and two great-grandkids. They have been isolating since the beginning of the pandemic.

“We want to be alive to see our great grandkids who we haven’t seen yet and enjoy our family get-togethers,” she said. “You know we’ve got 30 people in our (immediate) family and we’re not going to compromise being here for the events in life.”

Rocks removed from Wenatchee's Locomotive Park

WENATCHEE — Boulders that dot Wenatchee’s Locomotive Park are no more, or soon to be no more, after crews began removing them Wednesday.

“We’ve been wanting to take them out for a while because they’re a pain to mow around,” said David Erickson, the city of Wenatchee’s director of parks, recreation and cultural services department.

It’s part of a larger plan to improve the park adjacent the George Sellar Bridge.

The city will also remove several hazardous trees, plant new trees and put down grass where the boulders had been, Erickson said.

Erickson said the original plan was to remove the boulders after the ground had been frozen for a couple weeks so heavy equipment wouldn’t damage the park. But he said winter has been mild and spring is fast approaching.

“We’re getting toward the end of the deadline where we have time to do it; because once spring happens, we don’t have time to do much of anything,” Erickson said, explaining that it’s a busy time of year for the department.

The boulders were broken up by heavy equipment and will eventually be reused elsewhere in the city. The first batch will be used for landscaping at the Wenatchee Cemetery, while the rest will be kept in a stockpile, Erickson said.

The decision to remove the boulders was not prompted by a recent attack at the park against a city employee, Erickson said, adding that the city began planning the work last year.

A parks employee on Monday was loading a bicycle he believed was discarded into a work truck when he was allegedly threatened with a knife by its apparent owner, David Padilla Sanchez, court records show.

Wenatchee police say that during the alleged assault Sanchez pointed to a graffitied boulder to show the park was his territory. He’s being held at the Chelan County Regional Justice Center on $50,000 bail.

ANALYSIS: McConnell attempts to steer GOP back into the mainstream as COVID-19 relief debate begin

WASHINGTON — He’s denounced one of his party’s most extreme new members of Congress. He’s voted to approve most of President Joe Biden’s Cabinet nominees. And he’s expressed openness to a Republican compromise with the White House on a coronavirus relief package.

In the opening round of the 117th Congress, Sen. Mitch McConnell appears to be trying to take steps to reorient the Republican Party toward the political mainstream, even as Trumpism continues to be the prevailing strain among rank-and-file GOPers.

The question is whether his posture is just a temporary reaction to the political winds of the moment, a brief nod to the new Democratic Party power structure in Washington — or a longer lens strategy that guides the party back to its pre-Trump roots and permits Republicans to practice the lost art of bipartisanship.

His first substantive test is unfolding this week as Senate Democrats look ready to fast-track the president’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief plan.

“Mitch can be very tough and effective. I think he’s probably the smartest tactical political senator there,” said former Democratic Sen. Max Baucus of Montana.

But at the moment, even McConnell’s best intentions are largely at the whim of Democratic majorities that aren’t showing much eagerness to compromise.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has signaled he’s willing to use an expedited budget reconciliation process to approve the package on a party-line vote, even after a group of 10 Republicans went to the White House on Monday to submit an alternative that is about one-third of the price tag of Biden’s plan.

McConnell on Wednesday complained the “rushed budget process” would lead to a “poorly targeted borrowing spree,” and charged that it was Democrats who were reflexively abandoning Biden’s appeal for consensus.

“The new president talks a lot about unity but his White House staff and congressional leadership are working with a different playbook,” McConnell said.

To Democrats, the early signs are that the new McConnell is essentially the old McConnell — a master at party discipline and partisan opposition.

“Nothing has changed. Just like he did at the start of the Obama administration he is going to try to grind the Senate to a halt and then run against radical-do-nothing Democrats in two years,” said Jim Manley, who was an aide to former Democratic Sen. Harry Reid. “What’s different here is that he is also watching right-wing extremists tear apart his party, and so he is desperately trying to figure out a way to put some space between Senate Republicans and the Trump-forever folks.”

On the big-picture items — like funding to facilitate vaccine distribution and direct assistance to individuals and businesses — there’s little disagreement between the two parties. It’s the size and scope of the package that is placing them at loggerheads.

McConnell indicated Wednesday that Republicans would offer a round of amendments to the package challenging stimulus checks for undocumented immigrants, a minimum-wage hike that could hamstring small business owners and funding for schools that some teachers’ unions are preventing from reopening.

McConnell has not publicly backed a specific amount for the relief package, only saying the alternative $600 billion GOP proposal “could’ve gotten broad bipartisan support.” But he’s clearly positioning Republicans as the party of fiscal restraint — even as a Yahoo News poll shows 74% of Americans favor $2,000 relief checks, something former President Donald Trump backed in the waning weeks of his term.

Earlier this week, McConnell issued rare statements on two Republicans serving in the U.S. House that illustrated his concern over the direction of the party.

He denounced Georgia freshman Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene as a “cancer for the Republican Party” as she continues to attract media attention for her embrace of QAnon-fueled conspiracy theories, including the myths that an airplane never hit the Pentagon on Sept. 11 and that some school shootings were staged.

McConnell also lent his support to Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, who is facing fierce backlash for her vote to impeach Trump last month after the Jan. 6 riot on Capitol Hill. McConnell called Cheney “an important leader in our party and in our nation ... with deep convictions and the courage to act on them.”

McConnell will face his own impeachment quandary with the Senate trial slated to begin next week. While he initially signaled his openness to convicting Trump, he later voted that the trial of a former president was likely unconstitutional.

For establishment Republicans, these were signs that McConnell is trying to head off political problems in 2022, a midterm election year that should be favorable to Republicans as the minority party.

But in 2010 and 2012, the GOP blew its chance to retake the U.S. Senate due to a slate of problematic candidates who emerged from brutal primaries.

“GOP bizarro-world candidates like Sharron Angle, Christine O’Donnell, Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock cost the GOP multiple Senate seats and distracted from messaging that would benefit the party. It helped, along obviously with Trump, define the party to independent voters as extreme and unhinged,” said Doug Heye, a Republican and former Capitol Hill aide. “What we’re seeing now from some House members threatens to do the same thing for 2022. Just as he has done since the election, McConnell knows there is a moral and political imperative to condemn the conspiracy theories within the GOP.”

McConnell’s shorter term political calculation is how Republicans will be perceived if they ultimately oppose a spending package primarily designed to pull the country out of the economic hardship from a nearly year-long pandemic.

In the meantime, McConnell is attempting to present himself as the figure doing the most to exhibit some overture of bipartisanship — a familiar position for the party out of power, even if only by a single seat. But he faces an early political deficit against Biden, whose approval rating at 49%, is a full 28 points ahead of McConnell’s, according to a new Quinnipiac University national poll released Wednesday.

Farmers sue state for relief from 'arbitrary' COVID restrictions

YAKIMA — When James Alford starts talking about the COVID regulations farmers have to abide by, he starts getting frustrated.

“The problem is that when you read the rules that are written, they weren’t written by anyone with an agriculture background,” said the president of the Franklin County Farm Bureau. “We’re being treated like we’re mistreating the workers. We care about our workers.”

The frustration with Gov. Jay Inslee’s third renewal of statewide emergency rules has boiled over into a lawsuit by the Washington Farm Labor Association and the Washington State Farm Bureau Federation. They filed the complaint Tuesday in Yakima County Superior Court.

They are asking a judge to put a stop to what they say are arbitrary and sometimes dangerous rules.

The suit comes as thousands of farm workers are beginning to apply for the federal H-2A guest worker program.

John Stuhlmiller, the Farm Bureau’s chief executive officer, and Dan Fazio, the association’s executive director, said they wish a lawsuit hadn’t been needed.

“Our goal is to keep workers safe and to keep farmers in business,” Fazio said. “What we’ve been asking is for the state to work with the farm community. We haven’t seen that.”

Officials in the governor’s office declined to comment on the lawsuit since they hadn’t been served with the paperwork and legal counsel hadn’t reviewed it yet.

In a previous letter that denied appeals from the farm groups, Inslee said state agencies didn’t make mistakes in establishing the rules.

“Last growing season, Washington saw 145 outbreaks in agricultural settings and two fatalities in temporary worker housing,” he said in a letter. “I am unaware of evidence demonstrating that the risk of COVID transmission in agricultural settings will dissipate before widespread vaccination.”

The farm groups dispute the governor’s figures.

But Elizabeth Strater with the United Food Workers said they fought with the state early in the spring to have more stringent rules put in place to protect workers.

“It seems like a significant stretch to claim that these rules are arbitrary when state agencies have outlined exactly why the rules are necessary,” she told the Herald.

The laborers need those protections or face the danger of dying without medical attention thousands of miles from home, she said.

The set of emergency rules that were initially adopted in May were renewed in September and again in January.

The farmer groups are particular concerned about the requirement that farmers to be able to get a worker to emergency medical services within 20 minutes of a work site and to a hospital with a ventilator within an hour.

For many farmers who are dozens of miles from the nearest town, getting a laborer to an emergency room in 20 minutes would require excessive driving speeds.

For example, the closest emergency room to the association’s farm worker housing in Mesa is Lourdes Medical Center more than 30 miles away in Pasco.

In addition, the rules require workers with COVID or COVID-like symptoms to be checked by a doctor twice a day.

The rule isn’t practical, Stuhlmiller and Fazio told the Herald. Rural healthcare systems already are stretched thin dealing with the pandemic, and it would be better to make laborers a higher priority for the vaccines.

The lawsuit also raises issues requiring windows to remain open if housing is not mechanically vented and with a limit of 15 people inside a group shelter.

Unlike other organizations, they said this rule seems to be arbitrary and doesn’t take into consideration how much floor space is available or that people may be sleeping in bunks.

Alford pointed out he can be shoulder to shoulder with people on an airplane, but there can’t be more than 15 workers riding a farm bus.

More than 25,000 workers are expected to come into the U.S. as part of the federal H-2A program.

And Alford said it’s a highly skilled, career workforce.

At many orchards and other farms, the don’t have the luxury of scaling back production in the face of COVID. The same amount of work needs to be done whether there are workers or not, Stuhlmiller and Fazio said.

In one example, Fazio said a small Royal City farm spent $100,000 making safety improvements last year, and brought up 10 workers, about half of what is normally needed.

“He can’t operate his orchard with 10 workers,” Fazio said. “This is not like a shoe factory where you can close the door and open it back up next year.”

Most farmers operate on thin margins, and often find themselves losing money, Alford said.

“We made it through last year carefully,” he said.

The union and the farm groups disagree on the level of risk for farm workers.

Strater said a study by University of California-San Francisco researchers found that food and agricultural workers had the greatest increase in mortality rates compared to other essential workers.

And he wants to protect workers who could die from COVID if they aren’t closely being monitored by doctors.

The Washington State Department of Labor and Industries fined Gebbers Farms in Okanogan County more than $2 million after 24 violations of state rules were linked to the deaths of two workers from COVID.

“It’s more onerous to think about the level of risk those workers are taking,” said Strater. “When you think about the process of who has to explain that not only is your dad not coming back but you can’t even have his body back. H-2A is not just an administrative program, these are human beings.”

But she noted it’s also in the workers’ best interests for the growers to stay in business.

“We really should be able to find some common sense, collaborative ways to move forward,” she said. “That common sense needs to go both ways. We should be able to find a way to protect the lives of those farm workers.”

Wenatchee School Board discusses full-time schooling

WENATCHEE — Moving school to full time rests on the relaxation of the six-foot rule. With students separated by six feet in classrooms because of pandemic social distancing rules, school districts are limited in how many students can be in any one classroom.

Wenatchee School Board members discussed the six-foot rule and full-time school at a special board meeting Tuesday.

“People have asked, ‘When are we going to go back full time?’ Quite honestly, until they reduce the mitigation strategies, that is not something we’re going to be working on because we can’t do that across our district,” said Wenatchee Superintendent Paul Gordon. “We won’t have room in any of our classrooms consistently.”

Gordon said he’s hopeful by next fall, when many people have received COVID-19 vaccinations, that health officials will feel good about reducing the six-foot rule.

Paul Gordon

Wenatchee superintendent

Board member Julie Norton asked whether the school district had looked at partnerships with places like the Town Toyota Center to add more classroom space or considered eliminating elective classes to free up classrooms.

“The thing people threw out was, ‘Why are we taking electives? Why can’t we use those times, blocks, or rooms in lieu of electives trying to get everybody in?’” Norton said. “I don’t know how it would work trying to double up classes, but things like that could get everybody going all day.”

Gordon said the school district reached out to Wenatchee Valley College and Town Toyota about renting space but discovered the cost was significant. He said teaching in those large spaces was not going to be a good solution.

“As far as having no electives and specials, the kids have to go somewhere. Our core teachers can’t teach all day long. They can’t teach for 6-7 hours straight. So contractually, we’re not throwing our union under the bus. Our specials and elective teachers are really important,” Gordon said. “To have a full day without them in there just wouldn’t fly.”

While discussing bringing students back full time, board member Michele Sandberg said many schools in the state that have not sent any of their kids back to school.

“I think parents are under this assumption we are behind everybody else but in actuality, we are ahead of many schools because we’ve done it carefully and slowly just to make sure we had all those mitigating strategies down,” Sandberg said. “It’s not the answer people want to hear, but I’m proud of our district for doing it carefully and slowly.”

Norton asked if there would be any additional flexibility if the region reached Phase 2. Gordon said Phase 2 would only help athletics. It would not remove any of the mitigating strategies.

“The reality is six feet. Unless the board is going to take action to remove the six-feet of mitigation strategy,” Gordon said. He added, “We want to bring our students back. Once the six feet is removed, we will bring our students back. We know how to do that really well.”

Other school districts went against health district recommendations and chose not to follow the six-feet recommendation, Gordon said of the Mead and Moses Lake school districts. He said those school boards made the decision to follow all the mitigation strategies but the six-feet. Mead is near Spokane.

World photo 

Julie Norton

Wenatchee School Board member

“At some point, we’re almost ready to say we’re not going to stay in purgatory forever. We have good vaccinations out there and our infection rates are low,” Norton said. “We’re doing things relatively right.”

Norton asked if those school districts were getting push back from unions, health officials or the state. Gordon said it was pretty rough on the school districts early on, but to their credit, it has been successful. He said it was not well received by the unions early on.

Board President Laura Jaecks said 38 of the state’s 294 school districts — about 13% — are doing full-time schooling.

“We hear both sides. Not in a public meeting but in our emails and conversations in the community. We have people who feel equally strong in the other direction,” Jaecks said. “Some folks are saying, ‘What are we doing sending any child back to school right now?’ In the interest of fairness, we need to understand there is a spectrum of opinions out there.”

Norton said she does advocate a safe approach.

“People ask questions I don’t know the answer to. How is Moses Lake doing it? How are the other schools doing it? I want to get the questions answered. I’m not saying throw caution to the wind,” Norton said. “If we were ever going to exercise that approach to disregard some health guidance, we need to have alternatives in place for the people that are concerned about sending the kids back right away.”