Walla Walla County's daily coronavirus case count

Walla Walla County applied today for a variance seeking an early move into Phase 2 of Gov. Jay Inslee’s four-phased economic reopening plan.

Walla Walla County commissioners said via email today they submitted the proposal at 12:30 p.m., as Walla Walla County's current COVID-19 infections linger at three cases of patients in recovery.

Of the 106 total infections reported for the county during the pandemic, two have resulted in death. Another 101 people have recovered from the coronavirus.

If approved, the move would start the reopening of retail, real estate, salons and barber shops, professional services and restaurants and more businesses that meet health and safety guidelines.

"We are looking forward to opening Walla Walla County," Commissioner Todd Kimball posted on social media about the application. "We should hear back by Sunday or Monday. If our variance is approved, businesses would be allowed to open immediately if governor's guidelines are followed."

Phase 2 is tentatively scheduled for all counties to begin June 1, provided infection benchmarks are met.

But last Friday, commissioners unanimously agreed the county, with support from other local government entities, Walla Walla County Department of Community Health and Providence St. Mary Medical Center, would seek approval for the next phase of Inslee's "Safe Start" program.

Four days later Inslee made a change to the requirements for communities seeking a move to Phase 2. Instead of three consecutive weeks with no new coronavirus cases, eligibility was directed at counties with fewer than 10 COVID-19 cases per a population of 100,000 over two weeks.

Walla Walla is sandwiched between two counties — Columbia and Umatilla — that have been approved for the next phase of reopening by Washington and Oregon, respectively.

With required documents submitted to the secretary of the Department of Health, by Sunday if the case count remains at six or fewer, Walla Walla will qualify, according to Community Health officials.

“Our health department has really stepped up and I think it is time to ask for a variance,” Dr. Larry Jecha, public health officer for Walla Walla and Columbia counties said a special meeting last Friday.

The request required an extensive list of details from the county to prove competency for beginning Phase 2.

That includes proof of Walla Walla County’s adequate testing ability, team of case investigators, case management, isolation and quarantine plans and capacity to respond to an outbreak, which includes plans for homeless shelters, according to health officials.

Phase 2 allow gatherings of up to five people outside of each household.

Restaurants will be permitted to open at 50% capacity, as well as salons/barbers, in-store retail purchases with restrictions, pet grooming, previously deemed nonessential manufacturing and other services under health guidelines.

The county recommends businesses begin preparing to move into Phase 2 following the “Safe Start” requirements. Businesses are not authorized to open until they meet all safety criteria, according to a release.

Kimball said during the regular commissioner meeting Tuesday that others have said they wanted to wait until the county has the two- or three-week requirement met.

“I would rather get it in sooner rather than later and get it there, get it to the governor's office, have it reviewed,” he said.

He said he would rather send it in and meet the numbers requirement versus wait for the numbers to decrease and then send the request, waiting another three to five days after for a decision.

Commissioners Greg Tompkins and Jim Johnson agreed.

County officials said the community would need  to be at 6.1 cases per week or fewer to meet the state Health Department's demand, considering the county population.

Over the past two weeks, the county has had 22 cases, with 11 cases each week, according to the Walla Walla County Application for Variance.

From May 10-16, seven of the 11 cases were identified through facilitywide testing at a local long-term care facility, the application said. Thus, the weekly case count would have been well below the criteria. This week there have been no new cases.

"Although our case rate over the past three weeks does not meet the State of Washington Safe Start criteria ... Walla Walla County is confident this case rate falls well within the ability of public health to track and trace, as well as within the health care system’s ability to treat," the application said.

In a letter submitted with the application, Providence St. Mary officials say the operation has adequate bed capacity for the COVID-19 outbreak, as well as traditional patients. In the event of a surge of cases that exceed capacity,  a 60-bed alternative care facility is available at Providence's Southgate campus that can provide crisis-level care.

Providence has a 14-day supply of personal protective equipment for staff.

According to the application, all cases in Walla Walla County are linked to a known case within the community or are related to travel outside of the county.

The total number of tests per day average 50-55, and the tests are geographically and economically available to all populations, the application said.

The city of Walla Walla provided support along with College Place and Waitsburg as mayors from each city signed a letter to go to the state.

Sixteenth District legislators, Sen. Maureen Walsh, R-Walla Walla, Rep. Skyler Rude, R-Walla Walla, and Rep. Bill Jenkin, R-Prosser, , signed a letter in support of the request as well as Port of Walla Walla Executive Director Patrick Reay.

According to the application, a local workgroup formed to ready the county’s business community for successfully re-opening once the county moves to Phase 2.

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Chloe LeValley can be reached at chloelevalley@wwub.com or 509-526-8326.

Chloe LeValley covers civic engagement in the Walla Walla Valley including city governments, county commissioners and other civic groups. She is a recent graduate from San Francisco State University and came to join our team in October 2019.