U.S. Rep Jaime Herrera Beutler wants her constituents to know she’s trying to make sure they won’t be overlooked when it comes to the national response to COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus that has been declared a worldwide pandemic.
“My number-one goal is to reduce any mortality, to protect people,” Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, said during a “telephone town hall” event March 16, “but I don’t want to let fear dictate our response.”
“I know Southwest Washington residents are anxious … as am I,” Herrera Beutler said.
Her event followed an order by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee earlier that day to limit business operations and gatherings in an attempt to stop the spread of the disease that has led to hundreds of confirmed cases and dozens of deaths in the Evergreen State.
Herrera Beutler brought up the “Families First Coronavirus Response Act,” legislation passed through the House over the weekend, which allocated $1.2 billion toward coronavirus testing — $142 million of which was toward eliminating co-pay requirements for armed services members and veterans — and $1.25 billion for emergency nutrition assistance for seniors and low-income families.
That nationwide funding joins more than $14 million earmarked for Washington state the congresswoman has previously announced.
“Our goal is just get (the funding) out the door as quickly as possible. As locally as we can drive it, as quickly, I think is where it’s going to do the most good,” Herrera Beutler said.
Herrera Beutler’s talk about the novel coronavirus came as Southwest Washington was seeing confirmed cases of the virus in its borders. Clark County Public Health had announced its fourth confirmed case of the disease earlier that day.
The following day the department would announce that two other patients previously confirmed to have that disease had died — a couple in their 80s.
As of Tuesday afternoon there were 904 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Washington state, according to the state Department of Health, with 50 deaths (the two deaths in Clark County were not indicated on the state report). The number had risen to more than 1,000 cases in the state the following day.
Clark County Health Officer and Public Health Director Alan Melnick, who took part in the call, said while talking to state officials before the event he learned hospitalizations for the disease had gone up in the past few weeks. He stressed the need for “social distancing,” which involves individuals excluding themselves from populated areas or at least keeping far enough distance not to be considered in “close contact” with anyone.
Melnick explained the criteria for close contact — someone either living in a household with an individual confirmed to have the disease, or those who had been within 6 feet of an individual for more than 10 minutes. Those who had been directly coughed or sneezed upon by someone with COVID-19 were also under that criteria, given the virus’ spread through “droplets” from an individual.
“We’re concerned that if we don’t institute these interventions to help increase the distance between people, things will get a lot worse pretty quickly,” Melnick said.
He explained social distancing would help to flatten the “curve” of new cases as seen on a graph through the measures undertaken.
“We want to reduce the strain on our healthcare system,” Melnick said.
Melnick said it is “very possible” the outbreak could go on for several months, adding that the “severe” measures taken in China, where the outbreak was reported to have bgan, have led the country to be in the recovery phase.
In terms of how contagious COVID-19 was, he compared its reproductive number — a metric used to see how much a disease can spread — as something similar to the seasonal flu, though far less than something like measles for those unvaccinated.
Unlike measles, the novel coronavirus causing COVID-19 does not have a vaccine.
“We’re all susceptible to this infection,” Melnick said, noting the “novel” part of the virus’ common name. “We don’t have immunity to it.”
Melnick said that unlike the seasonal flu novel coronavirus did not affect children and younger people as much as those older and those with pre-existing conditions such as diabetes and heart disease. He advised older people to avoid gatherings of any size altogether, regardless of the 50-person limit imposed by the governor.
“At this stage I would keep (gatherings) as small as possible,” Melnick said, adding that any get-togethers should have adequate hand sanitization available should they take place.
For families, Herrera Beutler stressed the need to adhere to guidelines regarding social distancing to keep vulnerable populations free of the virus.
“The social distancing, though unpleasant, is really, really important … if you are part of the vulnerable population. Period,” Herrera Beutler said. She noted how in her own family, having grandparents wanting to see their grandchildren during the quarantine has been a difficult desire to go against, but ultimately worth the protection the distance provides.
“It is for the time being safer to go that route,” Herrera Beutler remarked.
One caller had been in southern California for several months and were due to return to Washington state next month. Melnick said there were not any travel advisories and felt that generally limiting interactions, as advised for those currently in the state, would suffice given the potential for the disease to spread nationwide.
“I don’t think any part of the United States will necessarily be spared. We’re going to see this in other areas,” Melnick said.
Melnick said the incubation period — the time between exposure and exhibiting symptoms — was between two and 14 days. He added that after 72 hours without symptoms there was a fair amount of certainty the virus was gone.
“The bottom line is, for most people … if you have been infected, by three weeks you’ve cleared the virus,” Melnick said.
One caller mentioned she was not able to get a thermometer when she showed symptoms, which led Melnick to speak on not hoarding items at the store — be it medical devices or toilet paper — in response to the virus’ spread.
“If you’re out there shopping, don’t take all the items that are there. Take what you really need for yourself,” Melnick said.
“It is so hard to tell yourself that when you’re standing in the aisle … The immediate fear response in the back of your brain is ‘get it all, get as much as you can,’” Herrera Beutler added, mentioning maternal instincts including caring for an infant and a child whose immune system was suppressed.
“I would ask us as a community, do what you need to do to keep yourself safe, but let’s also keep our neighbors safe,” Herrera Beutler remarked.
The congresswoman and public health director also talked about testing for the virus, which has been increasing as response to novel coronavirus has ramped up. Melnick said in the past, before more labs were available, including those from state institutions and private companies, and the priority was on individuals who were hospitalized.
He said challenges to testing were shortages of testing materials and personal protective equipment needed to acquire samples, which given the number of supplies made in China has been a factor as that country deals with its own outbreak.
“I have been banging on every door I can to get more test kits and then to make sure that the labs that we have available can process those kits quickly and effectively,” Herrera Beutler said, adding that has been a top push for her coronavirus efforts, demanding more personal protection equipment and testing capability.
“In my view that is my job to demand as much as we possibly can, not to take away from other areas, but we are being hit first. We are the beachhead,” Herrera Beutler said. “In my view, if we can put the smoking fires and the embers out now, then we can be part of the response for the rest of the nation as this virus crosses the country.”