This story has been updated to add information.
A Walla Walla family practice physician has asked the county’s Board of Commissioners to develop a stronger message about vaccinating for COVID-19.
Here, like in many Washington counties, elected commissioners also serve as the county’s Board of Health. At the weekly commission meeting on Monday, Sept. 13, Dr. Mark Haugen of Walla Walla said he appreciates that commissioners Jennifer Mayberry, Todd Kimball and Greg Tompkins came out last week with a resolution encouraging residents to make an informed choice with a healthcare provider regarding COVID-19 vaccinations.
Haugen asked the commission if they were aware that Washington state law requires local health boards to enforce state rules and statutes, plus provide control and prevention of “any dangerous, contagious or infectious disease within jurisdiction of the local health department.”
That law also includes language saying the health board must enact local rules and regulations needed to preserve, promote and improve public health.
Speaking as a physician, Haugen noted only two exemptions should apply to the COVID-19 vaccinations: an allergy to the vaccine or to components of the formula.
Commission chair Tompkins told the doctor he would need to review the Washington statute and ended the public comment period after Haugen said he believes a stronger stand is called for from the county’s health board.
Haugen said he is seeing locally that people are no longer listening to their health care provider’s advice, pointing out that the vaccination rate in some of Western Washington’s hospital systems is about 95%, while the East side of the state is closer to 60%.
Tompkins said he would have to review the state’s statute around the health board, thanked Haugen and ended the public comment period. However, the chat feature of the virtual meeting allowed others to continue expressing their concerns about the ongoing pandemic.
In the chat, commenter Amanda Jane asked if it was normal for commissioners to take just one comment during the public comment period, noting it does not seem an effective way to hear concerns from residents.
“Especially since we’ve heard for the second week the hospital has had to run at full capacity,” she added.
At the start of the weekly public health update, Tompkins again asked the county health officer, Dr. Daniel Kaminsky, if he’s felt supported by the commissioners.
The question keeps coming up, Tompkins said.
“I think from Day 1 the commissioners have been very supportive,” Kaminsky replied, citing their help with vaccination clinics.
He went on to lay out the COVID-19 situation. The rate of case transmission is still high around the United States, with nearly 94% of all counties in the same red zone they’ve been in.
Kaminsky noted Walla Walla County entered that zone in late spring, followed by the majority of the nation.
Washington state now ranks 30th for transmission levels.
A recent forecast from the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control suggests the peak of what experts say is the fifth wave of the pandemic is here and suggests the curve will begin to flatten again.
That does not mean there won’t be spikes in case numbers again, Kaminsky cautioned.
Washington, experiencing its highest rate of cases during the history of the pandemic, is 23rd nationally in the rate of COVID-19-caused hospitalizations for all age groups; people from age 18 to 69 make up more than 50% of those needing hospital care.
Keeping people out of the overtaxed Providence St. Mary Medical Center is of the utmost importance, Kaminsky said.
Over the last week, there were 20 to 24 COVID-19 patients at any one time, the majority of those unvaccinated, he said.
His department is encouraging people to use the hospital’s emergency services for just that and not for other reasons, and to avoid risky behavior that could lead to needing a hospital bed.
That includes getting vaccinated against COVID-19 as as to not get sick and need that kind of care, the physician added.
The participant, Amanda Jane, pointed out that Gov. Jay Inslee’s mandate for masking at outdoor events with 500 or more participants began Monday. More than 500 cases of the virus have been traced to outdoor fairs, carnivals and concerts, she said.
Considering the Union-Bulletin, as well as attendees, have said the crowd at the Walla Walla County Fair & Frontier Days was largely unmasked, “would it surprise you to see a large rise in cases from outdoor events? Then add in Wheelin’ Walla Walla,” she asked Kaminsky.
With school opening at about the same time, it will be difficult to ferret out the origins of a rate increase, he responded, adding the more people interacting, the higher the risk of COVID-19 transmission.
At some point the community will have to learn to live with the coronavirus, Kaminsky said.
“I don’t think you can mitigate all risk,” he said.
Still, people should take every precaution possible for the next four-to-six weeks, including getting vaccinated if they are not, Kaminsky said.
The outdoor events have not helped the local hospital capacity issue, Amanda Jane said before thanking the public health director and sympathizing with the difficulty of his job.
Haugen addressed the three commissioners again, saying he is having the vaccination conversations daily in his office.
“People need to hear from other leaders of the community, I would appreciate more commentary, I think, more conversation from all of you.”
Numbers for Walla Walla County, Sept. 13:
- 157 new cases of COVID-19 since Friday, Sept. 10; 547 active cases; 15 people hospitalized, of which 14 are Walla Walla County residents. Fourteen of the total COVID-19 admissions are unvaccinated, including all six COVID-19 intensive care admissions.
- Total COVID-19 cases stand at 7,536.
- The death toll is 79 people, according to local officials, while state officials report 82 related deaths.
Numbers for Umatilla County, Sept. 13:
- 32,865 people are vaccinated, up by 663 from the previous week.
- 85 new cases since reporting on Friday; 12,288 total, up by 404 from Sept. 6.
- The death toll is at 120 people, two more than last week.
Numbers for Columbia County, Sept. 13:.
- 33 active cases; 264 cases of COVID-19 have been reported and 30 residents have been hospitalized.
- The death toll remains at six people.
Information for Columbia County is from Washington State Department of Health.
- 607,160 total cases.
- 6,981 deaths total.
- 301,504 total cases.
- 3,446 deaths total.