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Four things to know: Where things stand with COVID vaccines and reopening in Yakima County
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In the midst of major events in Washington, D.C., this week, state and local health officials made some big announcements about coronavirus reopening targets and vaccination distribution in Washington state. Those decisions will affect how things will play out over the next few months locally.

Here’s an update on where things stand in Yakima County with COVID-19 trends, vaccinations and reopening.

1. Let’s start with the big question: When can I get vaccinated for COVID-19?

Washington state and Yakima County are still in the first phase of COVID-19 vaccination distribution. If you’ll remember, the first round of vaccines is going to workers in health care settings, first responders and long-term care center staff and residents.

The state this week released guidance on the next round of vaccinations, which prioritizes people 70 and older and people 50 and over who live in multi-

generational households. The state’s timeline says that next phase likely will start in January. Assistant state health secretary Michele Roberts said the state will be announcing the exact date in the future.

“Although we are announcing Phase 1B today, we are not starting Phase 1B today,” she said Wednesday. “We need time for planning and all our on-the-ground health care providers to be ready. So we’re asking all the people in Phase 1B, though you are excited to get vaccine, and we’re excited to get vaccine to you, please hold off on calling for an appointment until Phase 1B goes into effect.”

The Yakima Health District said Thursday that Yakima County likely will not move into the B phase until mid- to late February, depending on how much vaccine is available locally.

“We are working with local and state partners every day to plan for broader vaccine distribution,” Yakima Health District Executive Director Andre Fresco said in a statement. “We hope we can quickly increase the amount of available vaccine to meet the demand.”

The state Department of Health is launching an online tool called PhaseFinder on Jan. 18, which people can use to find out where and when they can be vaccinated.

2. How many people have been vaccinated locally?

As of Thursday, Yakima County had received 7,700 doses of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, including 5,750 initial doses and 1,950 second doses. Of those 5,750 initial doses, at least 3,000 have been administered. That doesn’t include doses given to staff and residents of long-term care centers through the federal pharmacy partnership.

Yakima County’s three hospitals, the Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic, Neighborhood Health and Central Washington Community Health and a few local pharmacies have been giving vaccines.

Astria Health said Thursday it has administered 420 vaccines to its staff members and other Phase 1A community members. It encouraged Yakima Valley first responders and other 1A health care workers to contact Astria Toppenish or Sunnyside hospitals to schedule an appointment.

Yakima Valley Memorial had given just under 2,000 initial doses as of Wednesday, officials there said.

The health district has a list of providers on its website for anyone in Phase A1 or A2 who needs to schedule a vaccination. Again, that’s workers in health care settings, first responders and long-term care centers staff and residents.

3. New reopening plan

The governor’s office released a new plan for business reopening on Tuesday which splits the state into regions and sets new targets.

Each Friday, the state will evaluate regional case rates, hospital admission rates, ICU occupancy rates and test positivity rates. For a region to advance, it has to show a 10% decreasing trend in case rates over a two-week period; a 10% decrease in COVID hospital admission rates over a two week period; an ICU occupancy rate that’s less than 90%; and a test positivity rate of less than 10%.

Yakima County is in the south central region with Benton, Columbia, Franklin, Kittitas and Walla Walla counties. The regions are mostly based on existing Emergency Medical Service regions because concerns are focused on COVID-19’s impact on the health care system, the governor’s office said.

A report released Friday showed:

  • The south central region’s COVID-19 case rate per 100,000 for Dec. 13-26 was down 4% compared to the prior two weeks, but did not meet the 10% benchmark.
  • The COVID test positivity rate was 21% for Dec. 12-19.
  • Hospitalizations per 100,000 for Dec. 20 to Jan. 2 increased by 12% compared to the prior two weeks. Staffed ICU beds in the southcentral region were 93% filled from Dec. 27-Jan. 2.

DOH uses the most complete data available for each metric.

The region, and the rest of the state, will remain in Phase 1 for the coming week, which means most current restrictions will remain in place. However, indoor fitness can reopen if the business restricts capacity to one customer per 500 square feet.

County commissioners in Yakima and Kittitas counties voiced objections to the new plan this week.

4. Local COVID trends and a quick school update

How are things looking in terms of COVID trends in Yakima County right now? In short, not good.

Yakima County had 1,076 cases per 100,000 people from Dec. 16-29. The test positivity rate was 45% from Dec. 22-28, according to the state Department of Health. Sixty-eight people were hospitalized as of Thursday, with 56 hospitalized on Friday. Those numbers are the highest or close to the highest they’ve been since the first COVID cases were reported here in March.

Yakima County’s per capita rate is much, much higher than the 200 per 100,000 over two weeks guideline recommended by the state to have in-person school. The Yakima School District continues to have virtual classes for most students. The West Valley School District said Thursday it will continue remote learning at West Valley High School in light of those numbers.

Staff writer Mai Hoang contributed to this report.

With virus surging, Biden to speed release of COVID vaccines

WASHINGTON — With COVID-19 surging and vaccinations off to a slow start, President-elect Joe Biden will rapidly release most available vaccine doses to protect more people, his office said Friday, a reversal of Trump administration policies.

“The president-elect believes we must accelerate distribution of the vaccine while continuing to ensure the Americans who need it most get it as soon as possible,” spokesman T.J. Ducklo said in a statement. Biden “supports releasing available doses immediately, and believes the government should stop holding back vaccine supply so we can get more shots in Americans’ arms now.”

Biden’s plan is not about cutting two-dose vaccines in half, a strategy that top government scientists recommend against. Instead, it would accelerate shipment of first doses and use the levers of government power to provide required second doses in a timely manner.

The Trump administration has been holding back millions of doses of vaccine to guarantee that people can get a second shot, which provides maximum protection against COVID-19. It’s seen as a prudent approach, since both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines require a second shot after the first vaccination.

But a recent scientific analysis in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine estimated that a “flexible” approach roughly analogous to what Biden is talking about could avert an additional 23% to 29% of COVID-19 cases when compared to the “fixed” strategy the Trump administration is following. That’s assuming a steady supply of vaccine.

After a glow of hope when the first vaccines were approved last month, the nation’s inoculation campaign has gotten off to a slow start. Of 21.4 million doses distributed, about 5.9 million have been administered, or just under 28%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Biden has indicated his displeasure with the progress of vaccinations.

“I think the way it’s being done now has been very, very sad,” he said at his news conference Friday.

Yakima County's 2020 homicides hit 40-year high

As if coronavirus wasn’t enough to make 2020 a rough year for Yakima County, there were also an unprecedented number of homicides.

The county’s 35 homicides in 2020 set a 40-year record, according to crime statistics from the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.

Of those 35, nine were in Yakima proper, the same number as the year before.

So far, 18 of the cases have resulted in arrests, charges dropped due to self-defense claims or homicide-suicide, as in the case of Emily Escamilla, whose husband and accused killer, Daniel Escamilla, was found dead with a self-inflicted gunshot wound hours after his wife’s body was discovered in their Selah home in January 2020.

But finding an explanation for the surge in cases, compared to 27 the year before, is a bit challenging, law enforcement officials say.

“I don’t have a clue,” said Sgt. Judd Towell, who leads the Yakima County Sheriff’s Office’s detective division. “That’s always the big question. In so many cases, you know the who, what, where, when and how, but you never know why.”

The YSO is investigating 13 cases, the largest of any agency in the Valley. Towell said there were a couple of cases where YSO started the investigation, but the case was taken over by federal authorities because either the suspects or victims were Native American citizens and the crimes occurred on the Yakama Nation’s sprawling Lower Valley reservation.

Among those were the April 9 stabbing deaths of Maria Martinez and her niece, Shante Barney, at their Brownstown home. The suspect, Edward C. Robinson, is now being tried in federal court for killing his mother and sister-in-law.

Federal officials are also investigating the deaths of two Grateful Dead fans who disappeared in June 2019 on their way to a Dead & Company concert at The Gorge Amphitheatre. The remains of Josiah HIlderbrand and Jon Cleary were found alongside U.S. Highway 97 south of Toppenish in July.

While the federal intervention has taken some of the strain off the sheriff’s office, Towell said his department is still working with a significant caseload.

“We have six guys serving a population the size of Yakima,” Towell said, noting that Yakima’s police department has several units of detectives by comparison. He said the Attorney General’s Office determined that the YSO’s detectives had one of the largest homicide caseloads on a per capita basis of county agency in the state.

While Yakima’s nine cases were about the sixth lowest in 40 years, Yakima police Capt. Jay Seely said that is still too many for the city. Like Towell, Seely said it is difficult to find a pattern that explains the cycles of killings.

“It’s hard to predict when two people are going to meet up and have that level of homicide,” Seely said.

In 2018, the city set a record with 19 homicides. In 1983, Yakima had zero.

Yakima County Prosecuting Attorney Joe Brusic said the Valley’s crime in general, and homicides, are largely driven by drugs, domestic violence or gang activity, or a combination of those factors.

While the pandemic may be a factor in some domestic violence cases, Brusic said the coronavirus is putting an added strain on the judicial system. Pandemic precautions have made it difficult for defense attorneys to meet with clients and prosecutors to interview witnesses, thus delaying trials.

Even so, Brusic said his prosecutors are handling a couple homicide cases each, which he said puts stress on them and the office’s resources.

Brusic declined to file charges in three of last year’s homicide cases because of potential self-defense issues. The most recent was the shooting of Marcos Ivan Mendoza-Guillen, who was killed in what police described as a gang-related shooting outside a Yakima convenience store.

Brusic’s office declined to file charges against the three suspects, noting that there was not enough evidence to refute their arguments of self-defense.

“We have to, by statute, look at all potential defenses as well,” Brusic said, “and we just can’t ignore self-defense. We have to prove the absence of self-defense in court beyond a reasonable doubt.”

By filing charges, Brusic said his office is expressing its confidence that it has a case that can be proven to the highest legal standard.

Yakima police currently have three cases that remain unsolved from 2020, including the killing of Linda Berukoff, whose battered body was found near railroad tracks in the 800 block of North Front Street in January. In that case, Seely said his detectives are running into dead ends as leads dry up.

Another frustration for detectives, Seely and Towell said, are people who do not talk to police out of fear of retaliation.

Seely said the community needs to work together to deal with violent crime.

“There’s only 140 of us. We can’t be everywhere at once,” Seely said. He said people need to say that violent crime is unacceptable and hold those who commit it accountable.

There are ways people can provide information while protecting themselves, he said. For instance, people can provide videos from security cameras on their property, which does not require them having to testify in court against a suspect while supplying the police with solid evidence.

Another option is Yakima County Crime Stoppers, which allows people to provide anonymous information about crimes. Phone: 800-248-9980.

Democrats plan lightning Trump impeachment, want him out now

WASHINGTON — Warnings flashing, Democrats in Congress laid plans Friday for swift impeachment of President Donald Trump, demanding decisive, immediate action to ensure an “unhinged” commander in chief can’t add to the damage they say he’s inflicted or even ignite nuclear war in his final days in office.

As the country comes to terms with the violent siege of the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters that left five dead, the crisis that appears to be among the final acts of his presidency is deepening like few other periods in the nation’s history. With less than two weeks until he’s gone, Democrats want him out — now — and he has few defenders speaking up for him in his own Republican Party.

“We must take action,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi declared on a private conference call with Democrats.

And one prominent Republican, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, told the Anchorage Daily News that Trump simply “needs to get out.”

The final days of Trump’s presidency are spinning toward a chaotic end as he holes up at the White House, abandoned by many aides, top Republicans and Cabinet members. After refusing to concede defeat in the November election, he has now promised a smooth transfer of power when Democratic President-elect Joe Biden is sworn in on Jan. 20. But even so, he says he will not attend the inauguration — the first such presidential snub since just after the Civil War.

In Congress, where many have watched and reeled as the president spent four years breaking norms and testing the nation’s guardrails of democracy, Democrats are unwilling to take further chances with only a few days left in his term. The mayhem that erupted Wednesday at the Capitol stunned the world and threatened the traditional peaceful transfer of power.

Pelosi said she had spoken to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley “to discuss available precautions for preventing an unstable president from initiating military hostilities or accessing the launch codes” for nuclear war. She said Milley assured her longstanding safeguards are in place.

The president has sole authority to order the launch of a nuclear weapon, but a military commander could refuse the order if it were determined to be illegal. Trump has not publicly made such threats, but officials warn of grave danger if the president is left unchecked.

“This unhinged president could not be more dangerous,” Pelosi said of the current situation.

Biden, meanwhile, said he is focused on his job as he prepares to take office. Asked about impeachment, he said, “That’s a decision for the Congress to make.”

The Democrats are considering lightning-quick action. A draft of their Articles of Impeachment accuses Trump of abuse of power, saying he “willfully made statements that encouraged — and foreseeably resulted in — imminent lawless action at the Capitol,” according to a person familiar with the details who was granted anonymity to discuss them.

The articles are expected to be introduced on Monday, with a House vote as soon as Wednesday.

If Trump were to be impeached by the House and convicted by the Senate, he might also be prevented from running again for the presidency in 2024 or ever holding public office again. He would be only the president twice impeached. A person on the call said Pelosi also discussed other ways Trump might be forced to resign.

Senators from a bipartisan group convened their own call to consider options for congressional action, according to an aide granted anonymity to reveal the private discussions.

Not helpful, the White House argued. Trump spokesman Judd Deere said, “A politically motivated impeachment against a President with 12 days remaining in his term will only serve to further divide our great country.”

Trump was tweeting again Friday, his Twitter account reinstated after a brief ban, and he reverted to an aggressive statement that his supporters must not be “disrespected” after he had sent out a calmer Thursday video decrying the violence. Toward evening, Twitter said it was permanently suspending him from its platform, citing “risk of further incitement of violence.”

The soonest the Senate could begin an impeachment trial under the current calendar would be Jan. 20, Inauguration Day.

Conviction in the Republican Senate at this late date would seem unlikely, though in a sign of Trump’s shattering of the party many Republicans were silent on the issue.

One Trump ally, Republican Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, did speak up, saying as the White House did that “impeaching the President with just 12 days left in his term will only divide our country more.

McCarthy said he has reached out to Biden and plans to speak with the Democratic president-elect about working together to “lower the temperature.”

But Murkowski said she wants Trump to resign now, not wait for Biden’s swearing in on Jan. 20.

“I want him out,” she said in a telephone interview with the Anchorage newspaper.

Another leading Republican critic of Trump, Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, said he would “definitely consider” impeachment.

Strong criticism of Trump, who urged the protesters to march to the Capitol, continued unabated.

“Every day that he remains in office, he is a danger to the Republic,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif.

Schiff, who led Trump’s impeachment in 2019, said in a statement that Trump “lit the fuse which exploded on Wednesday at the Capitol.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders, the independent from Vermont, tweeted that some people ask, why impeach a president who has only a few days left in office?

“The answer: Precedent. It must be made clear that no president, now or in the future, can lead an insurrection against the U.S. government,” Sanders said.

Pelosi and Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer both had private calls with Biden late Friday.

They have called on Vice President Mike Pence and the Cabinet to invoke the 25th Amendment to to force Trump from office. It’s a process for removing the president and installing the vice president to take over.

Pelosi said later that option remains on the table. But action by Pence or the Cabinet now appears unlikely, especially after two top officials, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao suddenly resigned in the aftermath of the violence and would no longer be in the Cabinet to make such a case.

Trump had encouraged loyalists at a rally Wednesday at the White House to march on the Capitol where Congress was certifying the Electoral College tally of Biden’s election.

The House impeached Trump in 2019, but the Republican-led Senate acquitted him in early 2020.


Associated Press writers Alan Fram and Alexandra Jaffe contributed to this report.