EAST WENATCHEE — The presence of COVID-19 in Chelan and Douglas counties is on the decline, Health Officer Malcolm Butler said earlier this week.

The numbers of positive cases are falling because of efforts by people in both counties to wear masks, social distance, get tested, isolate and quarantine, Butler said Wednesday.

While things are improving, Gov. Jay Inslee’s Safe Start phase plan requires there to be 25 cases per 100,000 people over 14 days in a county before applying to move to the next, more open phase, Butler said. Chelan County is still close to 200 cases.

Also, the governor’s office has put a hold on any phase changes for the time being, he said.

Butler told the Chelan-Douglas Board of Health on Monday that the counties are starting to see a downward curve in the positive tests reported. But the counties are still reporting about a 6% positive rate a week, based on all of the tests taken.

The 6% rate was from Sept. 7 to Sept. 13, when 123 people tested positive for COVID-19 out of 1,971 tests, according to Butler’s presentation. That was compared to 394 positives out of 2,177 tests the week of June 27 to Aug. 2, an 18% positive rate.

The governor created a four-phase plan to reopen the state’s economies. Chelan County is in Phase 1.5.

The decrease in the percentage of tests coming back positive is important, because health officials think schools are getting close to being able to move to a hybrid model, he said. A hybrid model would still mean that only high-risk students could return to the classroom, though, the majority would continue with remote learning.

Dr. Peter Houck, an epidemiologist working with the health district, added a note of caution with Butler’s report that Butler agreed with. Nationwide, communities have seen downward trends rebound once people grow lax or too comfortable.

“And we’ve seen this once before where numbers went down and we sort of let our guard up,” Houck said. “And the result was what happened in August and September (in Chelan and Douglas counties), so I just urge everyone to continue being cautious.”

Butler’s report also highlighted certain trends, including that the highest infection rate is found in adults ages 20 to 50 years old. They represent 33% of the population, but 60% of those testing positive.

As for the 22 deaths in Chelan and Douglas counties, all of them were older than 59 and many had other health effects that contributed, he said.

Masking compliance in both counties has dropped to about 70%, Butler said. People in Douglas County are masking up more often at closer to 80% than people in Chelan County at about 66%. People in smaller towns are also far less complaint with masking, he said.

“It remains the most effective tool we have and happily the (COVID-19 infection) numbers are continuing to drop,” Butler said

The health board members also discussed the possibility of compensating salaried staff for working overtime in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Chelan County Commissioner Kevin Overbay said.

Health district employees were asked to work outside of their regular roles and some have accumulated over 400 hours of overtime, Overbay said. But many of those employees who did work extra hours are salaries and exempt from receiving overtime.

Interim Health District Administrator Nathan Weed said the health district may be able to use CARES Act funding to pay some of the staff, including those who are exempt, and that attorneys are looking into it.

It is something the board is looking into and does not know if it can be done, Chelan County Commissioner Doug England said Wednesday.

The health board also voted unanimously to allow Weed to approve hiring more Incident Management Teams in the following months to help the health district.

The Incident Management Team from Pierce County that arrived on Sept. 15 will depart soon and be replaced with another team, Weed said. Incident Management Teams stay for two-week periods.

Weed also mentioned that he would leave his position as interim administrator on Dec. 9 or sooner if the board of health hires a permanent replacement.

Tony Buhr: 664-7123

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