Social distancing at the Kitsap Public Health Board’s special meeting Tuesday morning. (Photo: Austen Macalus / Kitsap Sun)
Debbie Schlosser got serious about social distancing two weeks ago. She stopped going into stores and restaurants. She has stocked up on groceries and orders most household supplies online.
She no longer leaves her home, besides the occasional trip to the post office. Even then, Schlosser, 64, doesn’t get out of the car. “I just drop the mail off and leave,” she said. “I try very hard not to be around people.”
As COVID-19 — the illness caused by the new coronavirus — has taken root across the Puget Sound, the pandemic’s impact has disrupted much of daily life on the Kitsap Peninsula. Schools are closed. Large gatherings are banned. Restaurants, bars and coffee shops were shut down and limited to take-out starting Tuesday. Whether by individual choice or the governor’s orders, most people are avoiding close contact with others.
All the while, Schlosser has followed public health guidelines to the tee. The Port Orchard resident is keen to take extra precautions to protect her health, especially because Schlosser has a weakened immune system because of her arthritis medication, making her that much more vulnerable to the illness.
“I’m just hoping people follow the rules about staying home and staying out of groups and staying aways from one another,” she said. “It’s the only way we get out of this with the best results.”
A similar message is given by Kitsap public health officials, who are urging residents to do their part in preventing the virus’ spread, even as the pandemic and its cascading effects are likely here to stay for some time.
The Kitsap Public Health District announced a total of nine positive tests of COVID-19 in the county on Wednesday. The latest two cases identified were a North Kitsap resident in their 60s and a South Kitsap resident in their 30s. Positive cases have now been identified in all geographic areas of the county, the health district noted: Bainbridge Island, Bremerton, Central Kitsap, North Kitsap, and South Kitsap.
Mason County also announced its first case on Tuesday night, saying only that the person was tested at Mason Health Clinic in Shelton on March 13.
“It’s here. We can’t stop it,” Kitsap Health Officer Susan Turner said at a special meeting Tuesday. “But what we can do is work very hard to stow the spread of the illness.”
Those efforts include practicing social distancing: deliberately maintaining at least six feet away from others to avoid spreading or catching the virus. That was on display even at the health board’s meeting, where chairs for audience members and public officials were spread out across the board’s chambers to maintain personal distance.
Along with avoiding close contact, public health officials are stressing the importance of individual actions, including washing your hands, coughing into your sleeve or tissues and frequently cleaning surfaces.
“Those are the things that are going to be most important to protect ourselves and our families and our communities,” said Keith Grellner, Kitsap Public Health District administrator.
It’s also crucial for people to stay home when they are sick, Grellner said. According to the Washington State Department of Health’s guidelines, people who are sick should stay home, isolate themselves from others and only go out to seek medical care if their symptoms worsen. They should also call ahead before visiting a health care provider and wear a facemask around others, per the guidance.
“If you are ill, do not come to work… We don’t want you in the public if you are ill. We don’t want you in grocery stores, we don’t want you in supermarkets, we don’t want you in gas stations,” Grellner said. “People need to take this very seriously.”
Gov. Jay Inslee announced a two-week closure of all restaurants, bars, and entertainment and recreational facilities starting on Tuesday. “We are not powerless against this virus,” Inslee said at a press conference on Monday. “But we have effective means of defeating it and that is distancing ourselves from virtually everyone else in Washington.” (Photo: Courtesy of the Office of Gov. Jay Inslee)
While recent changes — including schools closing, restaurants shutting down and a ban on public gatherings — are “very broad and exhausting prohibitions,” Grellner says they are necessary because there’s not yet a vaccine nor antiviral treatment for COVID-19.
“Our population does not have immunity to this disease right now. There is no vaccine. There is no antiviral,” he said. “So these nonpharmaceutical measures… are the best and only tool we have at the moment.”
But even more important than the government-mandated measures? The steps that individuals should take, including practicing social distancing in every setting, Grellner said. “This is an incredibly complicated challenge that is going to take all of us culminated to work on.”
All of these efforts fit into the broader emergency response, outlined by Turner on Tuesday, which aims to mitigate the virus’ spread, reduce risks for those more vulnerable to the illness and minimize the impact on the health system.
In particular, Turner says it’s important to slow the infection rate and reduce the pandemic’s peak to ensure the health care system does not become overwhelmed, what’s become known as “flattening the curve.”
That’s been complicated by ongoing problems related to limited testing for COVID-19, as well as health care providers raising concerns about shortages of personal protective equipment for staff.
Despite federal and state efforts to expand capacity over the past several weeks, Washington state health officials are still advising that health care providers prioritize COVID-19 testing. That means testing patients with severe symptoms, vulnerable populations — including elderly residents and people with underlying health issues — and people who provide crucial services, like health care workers and emergency responders.
“No matter what the claims are or assertions, there are only limited testing capacities at the state level and private labs,” Turner said “There is not the capacity to test everyone. There’s not even the capacity to test everyone who has symptoms.”
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While the number of confirmed COVID-19 in Kitsap cases rose to nine on Wednesday, the Kitsap Public Health District has continued to reach out to positive cases and their close contacts. The health district has already moved over staff to help, but the number of confirmed cases could at some point exceed their capacity.
“We are vigorously interviewing cases and reaching out to contacts and asking them to isolate if they are sick,” Turner said. “We plan to do that as long as possible… this seems to be one of the most effective ways to slow the spread.”
As the virus continues to spread in Kitsap, along with other communities across the United States, Turner says it’s likely that “most of us” will get the illness. She encouraged people not to treat those with COVID-19 as “a pariah,” but to offer help to others who need it.
“I really urge people to have compassion for people who are sick,” she said. “We all just need to be kind to help us get through this as a community.”
Kitsap Health Officer Susan Turner discussing the novel coronavirus at a community meeting on Wednesday, March 4. (Photo: Austen Macalus / Kitsap Sun)
In Schlosser’s case, it’s the time to “hunker down” in her Port Orchard home.
She’s been trying to keep busy with housework and reading, along with regularly disinfecting her home. She’s stayed in contact with family and friends through phone calls and Facebook messages. She’s planning on cooking at home, with enough food in her pantry and freezer to last the next month or so. “As long as I have enough cat food we’re good to go,” she said.
And Schlosser’s working on staying positive, even as the pandemic’s effect starts to settle in and the public precautions become that much more important. She hopes others in Kitsap will do the same.
“I’m hoping it will bring out the best in us,” she said. “People are realizing you have to look out for each other.”
Austen Macalus is the Kitsap Sun’s social services reporter — covering health care, homelessness and how programs are serving those in need. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360-536-6423.
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