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Posted on: May 8, 2020

Message from Mayor Wheeler

Opening slowly will be key to protecting the health of our citizens 

I write this letter to provide an update on the coronavirus and its impact in our community. 

It was only a couple of months ago, the virus was spreading rapidly. Snohomish County had the first confirmed case in the U.S. In King County, it entrenched itself in one nursing home so severely that over 35 died and hundreds of employees and residents were infected. Our nation declared the area the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak. It spread to other senior facilities and through workplaces, homes and businesses. The virus sickened hundreds of people and took a number of lives.

I expect you felt the way I did. Kitsap would begin to have cases in short order because of our proximity. Unfortunately, we only had blunt tools at our disposal to slow the spread of the virus when it arrived. These included closing businesses, schools and organizations and canceling social events and gatherings. Our citizens acted quickly and did what was once unthinkable to slow the rates of illness, hospitalizations and loss of life. Collectively, you did something unprecedented in current history.

Now we face a new challenge as Bremertonians. While the virus has been hindered, it has not gone away. In the midst of a pandemic, we are trying to partially reopen businesses and activities to serve the needs of our citizens. Our struggle is to balance reopening safely with protecting the lives of residents. 

Recently, there have been questions about using a “variance” under Governor Inslee’s “Safe Start” approach so Kitsap County can quickly jump to a Phase II opening. (We are currently in Phase I of the state’s plan.) At this time, we are not able to reopen safely at Phase II. 

The reason is the Governor’s approach outlines a number of things that must be in place to reopen early in the next phase. To do so, Kitsap must have a population of under 75,000 people, wide testing, contact tracing, and zero cases for three weeks, among other things. 

The first consideration for a variance is the county’s population. Kitsap has a population of approximately 270,000 people, which means we are substantially over the required number to qualify. 

The other factors are wide testing and what’s known as contact tracing. Working together, these are precise instruments that help detect and isolate the illness in real-time. They act like a GPS, mapping the virus’ location in the community. These tools are effective at helping to contain the infection and prevent it from spreading randomly and uncontrollably in the population. 

Right now, in many towns across America, the hunt is on for reliable testing kits. No one is quite sure why there are not more, but at this time, they are not available in large numbers. The search continues for them, but there are not enough to provide broad testing across our City. 

The other precise tool is contact tracing. This involves health care workers and volunteers communicating with individuals who have been in contact with an infected person. Once identified, they are asked to self-isolate to keep the virus from spreading and to protect others. We currently don’t have the level of trained personnel needed to conduct contact tracing widely in Bremerton. 

Another important condition is that there must be zero cases in three weeks, which indicates the illness is not spreading and incubating in residents over that time. While the numbers of new infections have been low, there have not been zero cases. The goal is to get that number to trend downward over a three-week period. Finally, case management as well as long-term quarantine facilities, which both require stable funding, must be included as part of the application.

The times we are in are rapidly changing. However, the lack of a complete set of tools to reopen safely means we cannot do so too quickly. While I am concerned for our small businesses and understand the pressure they are under to reopen, I am also concerned for workers and customers. Every resident must be able to be as healthy when they leave a place as when they arrived. 

Opening slowly, not too early, will be key to protecting the health of our citizens, including those most vulnerable to the virus who are seniors, individuals with underlying health conditions, underrepresented populations, and children. It’s the most important thing we can do to protect the lives of friends, neighbors and loved ones in our community. 

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