Health Dept. foresees nine testing sites taking 2,400 specimens weekly

  WHATCOM — To get businesses ready to reopen their doors, county leaders are preparing guidance for those businesses to help them navigate the uncertain times ahead.

  “It will be peer-led and peer-organized,” said Health Department director Erika Lautenbach at a virtual media briefing on Monday, April 27.

  She also detailed some of the measures that the planned Public Health Advisory Board task force will take to help businesses reopen safely.

  Lautenbach referred to these measures as “necessary but not sufficient,” meaning they will go a long way toward helping mitigate the further spread of COVID-19, but not get the job done completely.

  “The intended goal and outcome is to give businesses tools so they can implement proper social-distancing measures like some of the other measures you’ve seen in stores,” Lautenbach said.

  These measures can  include physical barriers between cashiers and patrons, lines on the floor that show six feet of distance, infection control including hand-washing and masks, and more. Such action will be paired with support for businesses and public education. If customers come in and don’t focus on interacting safely, it’s all for nothing, Lautenbach said.

  “If customers come in and don’t exercise proper precautions and social distancing measures, then the whole effort can sort of be defunct,” she said.

  The Health Department is working to create conditions under which businesses can safely reopen, but acknowledges that’s just one piece of the larger effort.

  “What is missing is the climate for economic recovery,” Lautenbach said.

  The Health Department is aligning its effort with the county’s economic development team to support the broader objective of what exactly economic recovery looks like in the wake of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic. A subgroup met Monday to go over the applications to be task force members.

  “We want to make sure that businesses are prepared and confident that they can reopen safely,” Lautenbach said.

  Cindy Hollinsworth, communicable disease and epidemiology manager at the Health Department, said Whatcom County is in a good position in terms of capacity to test patients for COVID-19. She said at least nine sites will be available to take about 2,400 specimens weekly. The healthcare partners can scale up or down testing as needed, as much as tenfold  each week. Even if the infection rate rises as social distancing restrictions are relaxed, the county is capable of testing more people, she said.

  Hollinsworth said antibody testing doesn’t yet give reliable information, meaning it can’t prove who has or has not had the coronavirus. Immunity to COVID-19 is not completely understood yet, she said, so the future benefits of antibody testing haven’t arrived yet.

  Lautenbach also touched on the racial and ethnic statistics related to the virus. According to numbers from the Centers for Disease Control, people of color are more likely to get sick and die of COVID-19. African-Americans are more likely to be hospitalized, and the Washington State Department of Health recently shared that Hispanics and Latinos represented 13 percent of the total population, 28 percent of positive cases and 21 percent of hospitalizations. African-Americans represent 7 percent of positive cases versus 4 percent of the population.

  In terms of essential workers, Latino workers account for 17 percent of total employment but count for 53 percent of agricultural workers in the state. African-Americans account for 12 percent of the total state population, but 30 percent of licensed practical and vocational nurses.

  “We’ve talked a lot about how we’re all in this together,” Lautenbach said. “This virus is really showing us that we’re all connected.”