Yakima County has 44 cases of the new coronavirus, according to the state Department of Health.

The case count increased by approximately 150% in Yakima County from Friday to Sunday, with about one-quarter of the cases among health care workers, the Yakima Health district said. One person has died. 

Spokeswoman Lilian Bravo said the health district was happy to hear about Gov. Jay Inslee’s statewide stay-home order Monday evening, following a health district-issued order late Sunday night.

“The biggest tool we have right now is social distancing,” she said during a Tuesday morning news conference.

Bravo said the main distinction between the two orders is that the statewide order is for two weeks, while the health district order is indefinite due to the vulnerability of the local health care system and recent closure of Astria Regional Hospital, leaving the city of Yakima with only one hospital.

“We are in a unique situation here in Yakima, and in recognition of that … even though the state is putting those two-week timelines, it may be longer here in Yakima County specifically,” said Bravo. “The goal is not to keep it open for a long period of time in terms of keeping that order … But the reality is we need to make sure we’re seeing these rates go down in our community before that happens.”

Dr. Teresa Everson, the county's health officer, signed the order Sunday. RCW 70.05.070 says the local health officer has the authority to “control and prevent the spread of any dangerous, contagious or infectious diseases that may occur within his or her jurisdiction.”

The local order mirrors the state order, and prohibits all social, spiritual and recreational gatherings. It requires that nonessential businesses close to the public. 

Critical infrastructure and essential workers are the same as those in the state order. Sectors that can continue are: health care, law enforcement, firefighting, public safety, public works including construction, agriculture and food, energy (electricity and natural gas), water, wastewater, transport and shipping, communications and information technology, government and community operations (including child care), some manufacturing, financial and legal, and hazardous materials management.

Asked if Yakima community members were responding appropriately to the order, Bravo said there was some confusion over what businesses could remain open. The health district plans to help with clarification, she said.

Health care workers

About 30% of the coronavirus cases in Yakima County are among health care workers, Bravo reiterated. She said the high rate may be due to first responders, health care workers and those in critical condition being prioritized for testing, but added it is too early to tell.

Bravo also said that "various health (care) centers" throughout Yakima County have staff cases of COVID-19.

She said this rate was a big concern since health care workers are key to treating and reducing the spread of infection. She said the health district is working with the state Department of Health to handle cases among health care workers and in the two local nursing centers where cases have been confirmed.

County efforts

The county fully activated its emergency operations center Tuesday to help coordinate information between officials and the public as well as fulfill requests for resources from medical facilities and first responders, said Horace Ward, of the Yakima Valley Office of Emergency Management. He said the center has been in partial activation since the beginning of March and has communicated needs to the state level, most of which have been fulfilled. He said that medical equipment has been set up in the county to use "when things get worse."

Yakima County Sheriff Bob Udell said Tuesday deputies do not plan to arrest, cite or detain people who are not in compliance. Law enforcement will instead aim to engage and educate those not following the rules. He said this could change in the future.

"Law enforcement is here to help the community," he said, adding that there were no plans to mobilize the National Guard, except to potentially help with hauling supplies.

County commissioner Vicki Baker said the community was coming together to offer support in helping local businesses and community members weather the storm.

She said she was developing a mentorship program in which community volunteers could help small businesses access existing services as well as federal relief services being developed. She said she expected to begin the mentorship program in roughly 10 days and emphasized a need for bilingual volunteers to meet the needs of the local business community.

Baker also addressed safety measures to protect against COVID-19 in the county jail, explaining that inmates are screened before entering the jail to ensure they did not have the virus.

Asked if the former Astria Regional Hospital building would be used for COVID-19 care or quarantining, Bravo said conversations remained at the state level and no updates were available.

Coronavirus Coverage

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Reach Janelle Retka at jretka@yakimaherald.com or on Twitter: @janelleretka