BRIDGEPORT — The Chelan-Douglas Health District and the area’s new state incident command team hope to test all Bridgeport residents for COVID-19.
The testing would be voluntary and free for the city’s population of roughly 2,500. The logistics are still being worked out, but the testing could start as early as Tuesday, health district spokeswoman Veronica Farias said Friday.
The health district conducted a small test of 32 residents this week, 12 of whom were found to have COVID-19. All the individuals who tested positive were Hispanic and were showing no symptoms of the virus at the time of testing, according to a health district news release.
The sample size was small, but a positivity rate of 37.5% is one of the highest among community testing efforts seen so far. A larger community testing event in nearby Okanogan County found rates of 35.9% in late July. Okanogan County Public Health is hosting more community tests through the month.
“More than 30% is very high for a random, little, last-minute sample of the community here,” Farias said. “So, the prevalence is pretty high.”
The city had recorded 189 cumulative cases of the virus as of Wednesday, according to health district data. It’s the third-highest case count in Chelan or Douglas counties, behind only Wenatchee and East Wenatchee.
After this week’s small-scale testing, the health district decided it would be important to ramp up efforts in the area, Farias said.
Next week’s testing is being coordinated by an incident command team brought in by the state, Farias said. A contracted medical team will assist on site.
The health district and the incident command team are preparing large-scale outreach efforts to encourage residents to participate, Farias said. That could involve door-to-door outreach, which was also used in the smaller test this week.
“We want to get the word out so we can see exactly what’s happening in that community,” she said.
SEATTLE — It could have gone another way.
Perhaps like this: The state could have lifted the stay-at-home order more gradually, and people could have stayed home, or away from each other, for the greater good. Bars could have stayed closed. Testing and contact tracing efforts could have been more widespread, and equitable. Other decisions affecting adults — their ability to get back to work, to vacation — could have considered the consequences.
Instead, here we are now, asking a question few thought possible just months ago: What would it take to get the state’s youngest generations back in school?
Few agree on how to define what would make schools ‘safe’ — we certainly can’t wait for a vaccine, many say — and there’s little precedent in the U.S. for how to return to schools amid a pandemic that’s raging unabated in many communities. There’s also disagreement among the public about how and whether buildings should open. But the one thing nearly everyone working on the issue — such as epidemiologists and pediatric researchers — agrees on is that schools shouldn’t open until community spread of SARS-CoV-2, the new coronavirus, is brought under control.
In Washington, guidance from officials has been shifting, with the onus ultimately left on school systems. In June, state schools chief Chris Reykdal told districts they should expect to reopen. This month, with incidence rates sprinting upward in a majority of counties, Gov. Jay Inslee strongly urged, but didn’t mandate, that many districts keep buildings closed.
Public health officials warned in July that King County schools should stay closed barring a swift turnaround in coronavirus transmission, something that was possible only if everyone in the community restricted their activity. That didn’t happen.
We can’t blame schools for this — they weren’t open, said Dimitri Christakis, director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s. “And yet, the solution seems to be: Let’s not reopen schools. How about we stop all the things that are going on that are driving the rise?”
“There’s been so much emphasis on what schools need to do,” said Saskia Popescu, an infectious disease epidemiologist at George Mason University. “It doesn’t matter if you invest millions of dollars in each school to make it safer ... if you have a community that has high transmission, it’s not going to make a difference.”
Christakis is a member of a committee on a leading scientific panel that recently urged schools to reopen for K-5 students and those with disabilities. Young learners had it particularly rough when buildings closed in the spring, and schools provide crucial services such as meals, extra academic assistance and mental health support. Schools are also a respite from tumultuous homes or from the streets for students who are homeless.
“Safety is actually now the most crucial question,” said Christakis. “It’s actually doubly important because the fundamental premise for saying we’re not going to reopen until schools are safe begs the question: When will that be or what will that take?”
Many school districts across the nation that have opened in the past two weeks have taken a different course than Washington and allowed for in-person instruction despite high incidence of the virus. A number of these districts in Georgia, Mississippi and Indiana are already dealing with students and teachers testing positive for the illness.
Epidemiologists and many policy experts agree that schools shouldn’t reopen unless certain criteria are met. For one, the percentage of people who test positive should be below 5% in a given community. If the rate is too high, this suggests that only the sickest people are being tested and many people with the virus are going undetected. Another factor: the number of people with the virus should be less than 75 per 100,000 people (some experts say 25 per 100,000) over two weeks, a metric that helps gauge whether systems such as schools would be overwhelmed by the virus.
If too many people are infected in a community, including children, “you can’t get it under control and you also can’t tell where spread is happening,” said Casey Lion, assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington. Contact tracing becomes inefficient and unmanageable under these circumstances, she said, since it’s hard to know where infections are originating.
But these thresholds alone aren’t enough: there’s another set of questions that are tougher to answer:
When in-person instruction begins, district officials need to be proactive and test students, teachers and staff and follow through on any positive results with contact tracing.
“Without those things in place then it is going to be a riskier proposition to open up the schools no matter what,” said Dr. Ryan Malosh, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Michigan.
School administrators also have to consider what to do when someone who has been at school tests positive or shows up sick. Does the entire school shut down for a couple weeks, or if the school is using a cohort system, does that group shift to remote learning for a couple weeks?
“Those are the kind of things that hopefully people have thought about before they get into it, because the last thing you want to do is have an outbreak and not be ready for it,” Malosh said.
EAST WENATCHEE — Eastmont School District classes will start on Wednesday as planned, officials announced Friday evening.
Technical difficulties had threatened to delay the start, Superintendent Garn Christensen said Monday. But the problems were being worked out by the end of the week.
“Class rosters and schedules for Eastmont students in grades K-7 are confirmed and teachers will begin working next week with students,” Christensen said in a news release. “Schedules and class rosters for Eastmont Junior High and Eastmont High School are still being finalized and will be delivered to students once confirmed and tested for accuracy. This is anticipated to be completed by the 26th.”
Students at all levels will have to confirm passwords and ensure Chromebooks are working, he said.
“I anticipate a few bumps in the first week or two of school,” Christensen said. “This is because some of the upgrades we initiated early summer to improve our ability to communicate and deliver technology in preparation for a possible remote start have not gone as smoothly as hoped and parts and equipment have been delayed. Please know we are very aware of these issues and working hard to remedy them and make this situation work better for students, families, and our educators.”
OLYMPIA — Unemployment claims in Washington state dropped for the fifth consecutive week — but the number of people filing remains at historic levels and many of those seeking benefits still haven’t received any weeks and even months after losing their jobs.
Nearly 60,000 workers who have filed for jobless benefits are waiting for the state Employment Security Department (ESD) to resolve those claims, according to data from the state and from an advocacy group.
One of those waiting is Martin Shuer, 66, of Redmond. He filed a jobless claim in March but hasn’t seen a dollar in benefits.
“It’s the 23rd week now without any resolution,” said Shuer, who has driven for Lyft. Despite countless hours on the phone with ESD, “nothing has changed.”
Much of the state’s job market seems caught in a pandemic-induced limbo.
Although the 21,942 new jobless claims received by the ESD for the week ending Aug. 15 represented a 0.9% drop from week before, it was still four times the number filed in the same week last year. Nationally, initial claims for jobless benefits rose nearly 14%, to 1.1 million, the U.S. Labor Department reported.
Unemployment remains stubbornly high. On Wednesday, ESD reported that 408,000 Washingtonians were unemployed in July, representing a jobless rate of 10.3%. That was up from June’s revised figure of 10%, and roughly on par with the national unemployment rate of 10.2%.
The data offered more evidence that the quick hiring rebound that occurred in May and June is fading, with only a modest number of jobs added in July amid layoffs that remain well above pre-pandemic levels.
“Over the last three months, nearly half of the jobs lost during the pandemic have come back, but there remains a long way to go,” Paul Turek, ESD’s state economist, said in a statement Wednesday.
Workers did get some good news.
On Thursday, ESD said it is applying for the Lost Wages Assistance program, offered by the Federal Emergency Management Administration. The program could provide an extra $300 in weekly benefits for three weeks to claimants who have lost work due to the pandemic.
But that will only be a temporary, partial replacement for the $600 weekly federal supplement to state benefits that expired in July.
The situation has been further complicated by often long delays in getting benefits to jobless workers as ESD has struggled with unprecedented claim volumes and a massive fraud scheme disclosed in May.
ESD has worked through much of the backlog — more than 1.3 million workers have received $9.7 billion in state and federal benefits as of Aug. 15 — but a small yet significant fraction remain unpaid.
By the state’s own data, as of Aug. 15, 24,291 claimants were not receiving benefits and waiting for the agency to resolve questions about their claim.
But ESD says that number doesn’t include individuals whose claims have been denied by the agency as ineligible for payment and who have filed an appeal of the decision.
For months, ESD has declined to share how many claimants fall in this category. Labor advocates say the number of claimant appeals has risen substantially during the pandemic. They also say ESD has been slow to resolve those appeals or forward them to the state’s Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH), which rules on such cases.
The latter assertion is borne out by data provided by the OAH. During April through August 2019, the average “transfer time” between when a claimant filed an appeal request with ESD and when OAH received that appeal was between three and four days, according to OAH figures.
In 2020, the average transfer time has grown, from 10 days in April to nearly 37 days as of Thursday, OAH data shows.
And those delays reflect only the appeals that are forwarded to OAH by ESD, advocates say. ESD routinely tries to resolve appeals without sending them on for a formal hearing, said agency spokesman Nick Demerice. ESD has declined media requests for either the total number of appeals it has received during the pandemic, or how many appeals it is holding onto for prehearing resolution.
But data obtained through a public records request suggests that, as of July 30, the agency had received 81,792 appeals since March 1, of which 46,479 had been either resolved internally or forwarded to the OAH, according to the Seattle- and Spokane-based Unemployment Law Project, which represents denied claimants and is suing ESD over delays in payments.
According to an estimate by the group, that leaves “at least 35,000” appeals requests that “were still being held at ESD,” said Anne Paxton, the group’s policy director.
ESD did not respond to a request for comment on the Unemployment Law Project’s numbers. But Demerice said earlier the agency has doubled the number of staff working on appeals. OAH says it has been receiving more appeals from ESD recently.
Paxton said she understands that ESD has been laboring under a heavy load. “I do sympathize with them,” she said. “But I have to sympathize with the claimants, too.”
That includes John Bouis, a 68-year-old commercial truck driver from Olympia.
After ESD denied a claim Bouis filed in early March, he requested an appeal but says he never received a response and is taking legal action to force ESD to either resolve or forward the appeal.
The only communication from ESD since then was a demand for identity documents to prove he wasn’t part of this spring’s unemployment-fraud scheme, he says.
”So I had to send them documents so they could continue to ignore my appeal,” says Bouis, with a rueful laugh. “The system is intentionally flawed — and there’s no recourse.”
An earlier version of this story misspelled John Bouis’ name in the final paragraph.