Kittitas County IMT members give community updates on public health


Bailey Tomlinson, News Editor

Members of Kittitas County’s Incident Management Team (IMT) gave updates regarding their various sectors’ public health and future COVID-19 related plans during their first community meeting. The Nov. 19 meeting, which was held online, was also opened to public questions following the updates.

CWU plans and updates

CWU has had 194 confirmed cases of COVID-19 since the beginning of instruction in Sept., according to Dean of Student Success Gregg Heinselman. Campus currently has 15 positive cases.

“And that has been about an average per week since we opened this fall,” Heinselman said. “We’ve had higher numbers and we’ve had lower numbers, but on the average it’s been somewhere in the teens.”

Heinselman reaffirmed that the first two weeks of winter quarter instruction would take place entirely online before shifting to in-person meetings and hybrid models for classes that would need it. According to Heinselman, the majority of classes will remain online throughout the quarter.

Students who have in-person classes, live on campus or work on campus will be required to test for COVID-19 upon returning for winter quarter. Samples of the university community will also be tested weekly to help understand transmission and spread within the campus.

Health and safety measures that were taken during fall quarter, such as reducing residence hall capacity, performing health checks prior to coming to campus and “aggressive” social media campaigns by designated student influencers will continue during winter quarter, Heinselman said. 

CWU will also still have the ability to isolate and quarantine students who test positive on campus, in the same way it has done during fall quarter.

The free testing the university offered to students leaving for winter break tested a total of nearly 400 students. Heinselman said that the Washington State Department of Health (DOH) agreed to pay for the first 200 tests at that event, and CWU will pay for the remaining half.

“I really do think our preparation, and planning and collaboration has been key in limiting the spread of COVID-19 on campus in the community,” Heinselman said. “We have fared much better than many of our sister institutions have when it comes to the infection rate of [COVID-19] with the population that we serve.”

Vaccine plans and priority populations

Public Health Director Tristen Lamb said that currently there are no plans at the local, state or federal level to make the COVID-19 vaccine mandatory. 

“I will say that when it comes to vaccinations, our healthcare providers are our number one trusted source for individuals and their families,” Lamb said. “So, public health officials all over the country are working with medical experts and physicians to make sure that our healthcare providers have all the information they need about the safety, about the efficacy and about the availability of future COVID-19 vaccines.”

Both Lamb and Public Health Officer Dr. Mark Larson confirmed that the vaccine will be given in two doses, between 21 and 30 days apart depending on which vaccine Kittitas County receives.

Lamb said that because of how the IMT is structured, it grows and shrinks as needed to respond to the pandemic. The most recent addition to the IMT, according to Lamb, is a new branch involving Kittitas Valley Healthcare (KVH) and KVH staff making plans specific to COVID-19 vaccination.

“Like everything else [COVID-19] related, my caveat is that updates come rapidly on the vaccine front, so my updates … are probably a little out of date,” Lamb said. “That being said, I’m happy to report that we’re all feeling some vaccine optimism, and I hope others are too.”

Lamb said “two companies with clinical trials that have shown high efficacy,” likely referencing Pfizer and Moderna, who have both recently made headlines reporting preliminary data showing over 90% efficacy in their vaccines, intend on applying for emergency use authorization in the coming weeks. 

“If that’s approved, we could possibly have limited doses as soon as the end of this year, or January,” Lamb said.

As of writing, Pfizer has applied to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to authorize its vaccine for emergency use. The review process will take about three weeks, according to the New York Times.

At first, when available doses of the vaccine are limited, Lamb said priority populations would primarily be healthcare workers.

“But that’s not just doctors and nurses,” Lamb said. “That includes the janitorial staff, the security staff, others where direct patient care is being delivered.”

Another priority population could be individuals who are at significant risk of hospitalization should they get COVID-19, Lamb said.

Current numbers and the impact of schools

“We are, like a lot of other places in this state, in a situation where we’re starting to see exponential growth in [COVID-19] cases,” Public Health Officer Dr. Mark Larson said.

Kittitas County’s current incident rate, which is the number of cases per 100,000 people over a period of 14 days, is 197.6. This means that in 14 days, out of 100,000 people, 197.6 cases of COVID-19 occurred.

Incident rate is calculated 10 days behind the present day so all cases can be counted accurately. The incident rate Larson reported was for the window of Oct. 25 – Nov. 7. This is down from the previous week, Larson said, which reported an incident rate of 216.9.

Larson also reported the county’s current percent of COVID-19 tests that returned positive was 6%. This is up from the previous week, he said, where it was 5.5%.

“Our goal would be to have that at 2%,” Larson said.

Kittitas County has had 978 cases of COVID-19 since the pandemic began. 82 of these cases, or around 9% of all of Kittitas County’s cases, occurred in the last week, Larson said.

Larson said numbers have been rising quickly over the past three months. In Sept., Kittitas County reported 101 positive cases over the course of the month. Oct. saw a rise to 255. According to Larson, Nov. is currently at 254, and is projected to rise past 300.

Larson said for each of these months, CWU students who tested positive represented less than half of the total positive cases that occurred. Of Kittitas County’s 254 positive cases for November, so far only 20 of them have been CWU students.

“As we look at incident rate, we can look at it going forward, of course there’s some data collection elements that are involved in that, but the projection is through today we would be closer to 300 as an incident rate,” Larson said. “So we’ve really jumped up after Halloween. If you look at the data, we’ve been doing really well until the holiday, and then we’ve jumped up.”

Future holidays are a concern for the IMT as well.

“I know there’s a lot of optimism in the county, and there’s a lot of pride in the way we’ve handled this,” Julie Petersen, chief executive officer at KVH said. “But I know myself and that the team here at the hospital are very anxious about December.”

Larson said the county is still doing contact tracing for positive cases, but is currently changing some things to have CWU conduct its own contact tracing. Prior to this, the county has conducted contact tracing for CWU’s positive cases. Heinselman did not elaborate on this during his provided updates.

According to Larson, schools in Kittitas County are not where COVID-19 is spreading. The impact of non-university schools on COVID-19 spread in the county has been low.

“What we’ve seen in the community is spread of [COVID-19] in situations where people remove their masks,” Larson said. “So, in homes, in churches, in places where people congregate.”

According to Larson, there have been 24 cases of COVID-19 in Kittitas County schools, split in near halves between staff and student infections. He also said that there has been no secondary spread seen in the school districts.

“That is because people are doing a really good job with masking, with maintaining six-foot physical distancing, and we are doing a really good job with doing attestations and getting folks diagnosed with COVID-19 and out of the school district,” Larson said.

Incident Commander and Kittitas County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Darren Higashiyama said that if county residents found this meeting helpful, more would be scheduled in the future.