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As COVID-19 numbers skyrocket across the United States, community leaders came together in an online town hall Thursday to update the community on their pandemic response plan.

Kittitas County Incident Commander Darren Higashiyama explained that the format was similar to a physical town hall format that is typically held during a community crisis such as a wildfire. Along with updates from panel members, citizens had the chance to ask them questions via a write-in format.

Kittitas County Public Health Officer Dr. Mark Larson said that the county is beginning to show exponential case growth on par with other areas in the state. He said the main increase in metrics involves the percentage of positive cases out of all tests administered, which stood at 6% as of the forum.

“Our goal would be to have that below 2%,” he said.

As of Thursday, Larson said the county had recorded 978 total cases, with 82 cases being reported over the last week. He pointed out that last week’s positive cases totaled almost 9% of all cases reported since the pandemic reached the county. Looking into the cause of community spread, Larson said they are seeing most of the positive cases coming as a result of people removing their masks in places where people congregate.

Larson pointed out metrics that show that the pandemic is growing in the county over the last few months, with September seeing 101 positive cases reported, 255 cases in October and 154 cases in November as of Thursday. He said the projection is to see approximately 300 positive cases reported by the end of the month.

“We really jumped up after Halloween,” he said.

Over on the campus of Central Washington University, Larson said 46 cases were reported in September, 119 cases in October and 20 cases so far in November. On the ground, Larson said contact investigators are working diligently to reach out to people who have tested positive those they have been in contact with, and that the county is pivoting to a system where CWU conducts its own contact investigations.

Larson said Kittitas County is unique within the state in that all schools within the county are currently open to in-person classes. He said the county has recorded 24 positive cases since classes began, with approximately half of the cases being students and half of them being staff members. He said strict rules on masking and social distancing within the schools have kept cases relatively low, with no evidence of any secondary spread within the school district.

“We have more students in school per capita than any county in the state,” he said. “That’s due to the aggressive work the schools have done to make things safe.”

While the schools are currently using mail-in PCR testing for high-risk students and staff members, Larson said the county is looking to implement rapid testing as students return to school after Thanksgiving break.

“We are asking all of you from Public Health to do your part to keep disease rates down so we can continue to keep schools in session,” he said.

LOOKING TOWARDS THE FUTURE

Kittitas County Public Health Director Tristan Lamb explained that public health is not just an undertaking of the department and the county’s Incident Management Team, but that it involves every member of the community to coming together to help ensure the county remains safe. She said it is more common for the community to seeing the IMT mobilizing in situations like a wildfire as opposed to the current pandemic.

“I want to remind everybody that we are community members ourselves,” she said. “We work and live in Kittitas County. When I started my position in Public Health, I had no idea I would be spending months and months as a part of a nonstop Incident Management Team. We’re your neighbors. We’re not SWAT or the military, although some of us have served in the military. For the most part, we’re a group of individuals with a wide variety of skillsets, and we rely on each other to find every resource available to respond to a crisis. We’re here to help our community find our way out, or at least the way through all of this.”

Lamb said a new branch of the IMT is being headed up by Kittitas Valley Healthcare and Kittitas Valley Fire and Rescue to handle planning on vaccine distribution. Although the situation is fluid and changes frequently with rapid updates from the state level, she said her department feels optimistic about vaccine development. If the companies seeing success with vaccine development receive federal emergency authorization, she said it could be possible for the county to receive limited amounts of the vaccines as soon as January.

“I think it’s important for people to know that right now, there are no current plans at the federal, state or local level to mandate this vaccine,” she said. “I will say that when it comes to vaccinations, our healthcare providers are the number one trusted source for individuals and their families.”

Lamb said Public Health will work diligently with local healthcare providers to ensure they have the most current information on vaccine development progress, and said it is important to have information that is both current and accurate to help cut down on the spread about misinformation regarding vaccine development.

As the vaccines are ready to distribute, Lamb said the limited numbers of the vaccines available within the county will be prioritized for healthcare workers and others in high-risk settings. She said that prioritization is crucial to maintain surge capacity within the local healthcare system. Lamb said others in the community that will be prioritized include those who are at high risk of hospitalization due to the virus.

“I urge the public to keep an eye out for all vaccine information,” she said. “Know that if your healthcare professional or your Public Health professionals believe that vaccine to be unsafe, we would not recommend or promote it. Based on the currently available information, I am confident, and when it’s my turn I will happily get mine.”

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