Our community is struggling. We have been dealing with COVID-19 since March and this virus has impacted all of us. As we grapple with next steps, the Immigrant and Latinx Solidarity Group (ILSG) believes there is value in looking back and analyzing our recent history. To do this, the ILSG has reviewed documents obtained via a public records request filed by Columbia Legal Services with the Chelan-Douglas Health District (CDHD). We hope this helps our community going forward, together.
The public records revealed a sequence of events and decisions that are concerning on multiple fronts:
1. Lawsuit — Multiple local officials were involved in a private lawsuit called Cuevas v. Inslee. The public records demonstrate how various public officials intermingled official business with their private endeavors. In one instance, a plaintiff in the lawsuit acting in their official capacity as a Board of Health (BOH) member, requested that a BOH meeting time be moved so the board could attend a hearing for the lawsuit because,“I feel it is important to be there along with other members of this board.” In another instance,the attorney for the private plaintiffs requested the county sheriff obtain a signed declaration from the now-former Health District Administrator Barry Kling and deliver it to a BOH member.
2. Testing Numbers — Mass testing was rejected. On one occasion, local jail officials rejected testing all new bookings because “this could elevate our risk level to unmanageable circumstances.” There was also pressure from county commissioners to release numbers regarding “recovered” COVID patients. Although health district officials believed it was“meaningless,” undefined and only served as an additional burden, the conclusion was: “when my boss says ‘jump,’ I ask how high.”
3. Re-opening proposals — Business leaders, members of the Board of Health and elected officials impeded an already understaffed CDHD from being able to focus on COVID response issues; principal among them were tasks that sprung from developing proposals when our county clearly did not fit within the criteria to reopen. While claiming to advocate for local control, members of the board of health also sought the assistance of a person who lived outside our region to develop a concurrent re-opening plan, without first consulting our local health experts.
Overall, the speed at which prior attempts to reopen were made are the most troubling actions. Those actions consumed already limited Health Department resources and ran counter to their expertise. To push their reopening efforts, our local leaders were eager to prove they had local control over the COVID-19 situation.
According to recent news articles, our local hospital has needed to redirect patients away, no local agency has been able to take charge of consistent contact tracing, and we now have one of the highest infection rates in Washington. Given our current state, we should ask those same leaders, did we really have control over our community’s health?
As a community, we should not be looking to submit another application to reopen within 24 hours of reaching “acceptable” levels of infection rates. We only need to look at our friends and neighbors in Okanogan County for a real-world example.
In the words of their own Health District representative, “When we went to Phase 2, people took that as opening the floodgates and it’s gone ballistic since then.” The more we reopen, the more we must be willing to do to ensure we do not have to roll back and further delay the reopening of our county.
Our goal should be to reopen safely.
Everyone is equally worried about being able to work and provide for their families; therein lies the formula for our mutual success. By putting people over profits, we will all be able to continue to reopen safely and profitably. We should all work together as a community to be inclusive, encourage masking, support worker safety, and not undermine the specialized knowledge and experience of public health experts who have dedicated their professions to caring for community health.
The ILSG was formed with the purpose of speaking up for our community members who are historically rendered invisible and unable to raise concerns due to fears of retaliation. While business-owner interests continue to be heavily represented, the ILSG is working to amplify the voices of our community’s essential workers. Whether an individual works as a barista, cashier or farmworker, it is imperative that their concerns, experiences and input be shared. The ILSG is committed to highlighting these stories and will be providing them in the months to come.
In the words of Barry Kling: “[I]t is getting tougher, and I hope I will be able to see the line between a resilient effort to do the best public health work permitted by the circumstances on the one hand, and collaboration with some very dark developments on the other. … If political decisions about the pandemic allow it to become worse than it has to be, it will be important for public health to help clean up the mess.”
The Immigrant and Latinx Solidarity Group is composed of local community members that include: Karina Vega-Villa, Xaxira Ponce de León, Krista Herling, Brian Herling, Wilma Cartagena, Carrie Kingsley, Tony Gonzalez, Teresa Smith, and Jessica Kendall, MPH.