Changing state requirements led to one-day application delay

WHATCOM — Whatcom County just missed the deadline to apply for Phase 2 of Washington’s reopening plan on Monday.

In a media call Monday morning, Whatcom County Health Department director Erika Lautenbach said the county had initially planned to file its application to move to Phase 2 on Monday, but some policy changes at the state level made that impossible.

“We were finalizing the variance application based on the information that we had last week and the application to move to Phase 2 that we received yesterday had some significant differences so that we were not able to complete those documents by the 10 a.m. special Health Board meeting of the County Council,” Lautenbach said.

The county Health Board must vote on the application and the county executive must release a signed statement of approval to send to the state secretary of health. That was now set to occur Tuesday, Lautenbach said.

“We were really disappointed that we couldn’t make this happen today,” Lautenbach said.

A move from Phase 1 to 2 will allow retailers to have in-store purchases, restaurants to reopen at 50-percent capacity and a maximum table size of five, as well as allowing for the restart of new construction and for real estate, hair salons, nail salons and barbers to start operating again.

The Phase 2 application was set to be made public Tuesday afternoon, Lautenbach said, and it includes a variety of mandatory and non-mandatory metrics, most of which Whatcom County has met.

These metrics include fewer than 25 cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 population over the course of two weeks, flat or decreasing COVID-19 hospitalizations, as well as numbers related to testing capacity, licensed beds available, contact tracing and more.

Lautenbach said Whatcom County only fell short of two of the metrics, but neither were hard and fast requirements for the move to Phase 2. One of the testing metrics stipulates that the average number of tests performed per day during the past week must total out to 2 percent or less being positive. Lautenbach said the county was above that as of Monday’s briefing, clocking in with 3.4 percent, but that’s an “ideal” metric, and she also attributed the 3.4 percent to data entry delays.

“This really has to do with the back-end systems not communicating well,” Lautenbach said. “This is a problem for both Whatcom and Skagit County. Northwest Labs is, at this point, not able to electronically file their results to the state.”

Lautenbach said that a public health nurse is spending half of each day receiving paper faxes and inputting them into the state system.

“There’s a lag between that input and the state recognizing those numbers,” she said. “It’s a back-end system that we’re working with the state to address.”

The state target for contact tracing is 80 percent reached by phone. This means that the county should contact a person who has had contact with a positive COVID-19 case by phone 80 percent of the time. Whatcom County sat at 70 percent on Monday, but Lautenbach said this is also an ideal metric and isn’t necessarily required to move to Phase 2. The county is hiring on more contact investigators, Lautenbach said.

Whatcom County currently has one active outbreak of COVID-19, Lautenbach said, which is the state maximum for a move to Phase 2. She could not disclose the location of the outbreak, but she did say it was a processing facility.

“I cannot provide the name of the facility because the employer has not given consent,” Lautenbach said.

The county’s Phase 2 application was set to be available to the public on Tuesday.