Thanks to improving COVID-19 metrics, Yakima County residents can enjoy more opportunities for eating out, gathering with others and enjoying fall traditions like pumpkin patches. Some public school students will head back into classrooms in the next few weeks in a measured return to regular routines.
But the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed more than 205,000 Americans, isn’t over, health experts stress. Some states, like Wisconsin, are seeing a resurgence of cases. With cold weather and the holidays ahead, authorities worry about a looming wave of COVID-19 infections and deaths.
Dr. Teresa Everson is among them. In a letter to Yakima County residents Tuesday, the county health officer urged people to enjoy Yakima safely. The letter was a response to a new pro-business ad campaign put together by a group of community members.
“We can and should enjoy Yakima, by following the safety precautions to ensure we can continue to see further declines in our numbers and move toward a path of further reopening,” Everson wrote. “Remember, more people (equals) more risk, indoor is higher risk than outdoor, and less space is higher risk than more space.”
There are conflicting messages circulating “that we can all ‘go back to normal,’ and this is unfortunately not true,” Everson said in her letter.
“We all must remember that as businesses and other activities slowly re-open, this not because the COVID-19 pandemic is ‘over.’ This is being done because our metrics show that our community has been taking public health recommendations seriously,” she said.
Everson didn’t specifically name Enjoy Life Yakima, a local group that recently began running television and radio ads highlighting Yakima County’s improving COVID-19 statistics, which it gets from the Yakima Health District.
The television ad, available on the Enjoy Life Yakima website, includes images of people without face coverings closer than 6 feet from one another — measures that health officials such as Everson continue to stress are as important in slowing the spread of COVID-19.
“Our current level of safety in our county has all been hard-earned,” Everson said during the health district board of health monthly meeting Wednesday. “Now is not a good time for folks to be relaxing.”
Coronavirus numbers in Yakima County have improved drastically since early summer. Cases peaked in late June. In one two-week period that month, there was a rate of 754 newly diagnosed cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 people in Yakima County, the highest on the West Coast. The number has dropped thanks in part to a mask order that took effect in June.
Yakima County had 82 cases per 100,000 people from Sept. 5-18, the lowest it has been in months. The number is one of several criteria the state uses for reopening, with a goal of fewer than 25 cases per 100,000 over two weeks. The testing positivity rate in the county from Sept. 12-18 is 8.3%; the state’s goal is 2%, Everson has said. Hospitalizations and intubations due to COVID-19 have decreased and are stable. As of Wednesday, no one was intubated.
“As a community, Yakima has worked diligently to follow the public health recommendations and we have seen our cases drop significantly over the past several months. For this reason, we have been able to slowly re-open businesses and even begin to plan for in-person learning,” Everson said in her letter.
Group puts out ad campaign
Enjoy Life Yakima celebrates those improvements, Brent Hodson said. The longtime owner of Parry Jewelers agreed to serve as a public face for the campaign but others are involved, including business owners, church leaders and citizens. It’s supported by private donations and will last as long as supporters have money. They hope to run it for a couple months, Hodson said.
People have become paralyzed by fear, Hodson said. That upsets him for several reasons.
“When I talk to people, they’re literally afraid. They’re afraid to come out of their homes. It’s really, really sad,” he said. “Come out, folks. The restaurants are open. Go help these people. Get out of your home.”
Yakima County remains in a modified Phase 1 of Gov. Jay Inslee’s four-part Safe Start plan to reopen Washington, though additional business activities have been allowed. It’s important to support local businesses, Hodson said.
“The numbers are down. Even if you look at the worst numbers, they’re still not anything to justify anything that happened to our community,” he said. “It’s not as bad as you might be thinking it is.”
But he said many people remain afraid. “I’m not saying be stupid or anything, but the numbers aren’t scary.”
Hodson shut his store down for three weeks, during which he repainted and remodeled. He reopened some time ago and trusts people to use common sense, he said.
“Most people are smart enough. ... If you don’t feel good, stay home, even in flu season,” Hodson said. “I think some positives will come out this so people will think a little bit more when it’s flu season (and) stay home or stay away when they don’t feel good.”
Officials have said public health recommendations of social distancing at least 6 feet, wearing masks in public, keeping social circles small and holding activities outdoors rather than indoors could help lessen the impact of flu season, which begins Thursday.
“I’m the first to say I believe the virus is real. I am blessed with a very good immune system,” Hodson said. “I’ve been selling jewelry since 1979. I’m in contact constantly with people over the counter. I’ve probably missed two days of work in 41 years.
“I believe this is real. I believe the flu season is real too,” he added. “I don’t believe this is going to go away. I believe this is something we’re going to have as we do the flu every year. ... We’re going to have this in the air around us too.”
A turnaround model
To date, 4.8% of Yakima County residents have had COVID-19, Everson said Wednesday. It’s unknown how many have been infected, but herd immunity and a vaccine are far away, she has said.
She “wholeheartedly supports efforts to give hope and build resilience, but that is not done through misinformation and it should not be done at the expense of community safety,” Everson said during the health board meeting. She urged everyone to stay vigilant.
“Let’s continue to do what we have been doing — it’s been working. We went from being the worst in the state and across the West Coast to being a model of what we can be accomplished when we all work together,” she wrote in her letter.
“If we mistakenly believe that we have ‘beaten’ COVID-19 before a vaccine is readily available — we will be on track to go back to where we used to be.”