Washington governor signs bill to help workers, businesses

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signs the first bill to be signed into law during the 2021 legislative session, Monday, Feb. 8, 2021, at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash.  (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Gov. Jay Inslee and state health officials have all the decision-making power when it comes to Washington’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. Local health districts have limited input.

When it came time to promote many of the state’s county-based regions from Phase 1 to Phase 2 of Inslee’s Healthy Washington Plan, local health districts in the South Central region — Yakima, Kittitas, Benton, Franklin, Walla Walla and Columbia counties — knew their data. Inslee and state health officials did not.

Local officials — particularly those in Yakima County, which for months has struggled to meet state criteria for relaxing restrictions — have been asking the governor’s office for more of a say in the decision-making process in the fight against COVID-19. Perhaps this will encourage the governor to give more control to local districts, which clearly know their home turf better than state bureaucrats do.

It should.

There were plenty of metaphorical raised eyebrows when Inslee announced Feb. 11 that every region except ours would reside in Phase 2 after meeting three of four health benchmarks.

“The South Central region currently meets two of those four,” Inslee said at the time. “We just need to get them over one more so they can join the other 92% of the state. We look forward to that.”

Promotion to Phase 2 meant indoor dining and indoor fitness center capacity of 25% and a modified fall sports season for high schools, among other incentives — for every other region.

Inslee’s announcement quickly led to collective “Huh?” from county health departments and elected officials, including Yakima County Commissioner Amanda McKinney, who was confident that one of the missed benchmarks — hospital admissions — had been met.

“I knew for a fact that Yakima County’s data was significantly down,” said McKinney, who noted that the region’s officials quickly did their own investigation into hospitalization numbers. This led to the discovery of a significant reporting error by a hospital in Walla Walla County — a fairly obvious error that the state did not uncover before making its announcement.

McKinney, who offered pointed praise for the Yakima Health District for its role in helping coordinate the investigation and finding the error, also said she had suggested to Inslee and other state health officials that they release their data to local officials before making any reopening announcements. If this simple request had been granted prior to Feb. 11, she said, the error could have been caught sooner.

“If we found out ahead of time, even a day or a few hours, we could have said, ‘Hey, we don’t think this is right,’” McKinney told the Herald-Republic.

This time, it didn’t happen. And next time?

For that matter, why didn’t someone working for the state flag the inconsistent data and double-check?

McKinney’s suggestion is a good one. No more surprises, governor. If you are unwilling to give local health districts more of a say in how to handle the pandemic in their own counties, at least give them a heads-up before you make your decisions final and reveal them to all. It could save unnecessary anger and embarrassment.

To the state’s credit, it moved quickly to promote the South Central region into Phase 2 once the error was revealed and the correct data confirmed. What happened then was another unintended sidebar, but one with a largely happy ending. The state Department of Health’s revelation of the data error and South Central’s subsequent promotion to Phase 2 was revealed Feb. 14 — a Sunday. Not everybody heard the news as soon as they would have liked.

Ah, well. The good news is that we’re in Phase 2. For now. The potential bad news is that we can drop right back into Phase 1 in a hot minute unless we continue to meet benchmarks.

Stay vigilant, Yakima County!

Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Greg Halling, Joanna Markell and Bruce Drysdale.