PORT ANGELES — Clallam County will add public health staff to help fight the coronavirus pandemic, commissioners said Monday.
Commissioners agreed to hire three full-time employees and assign others to part-time positions to help the Health and Human Services Department respond to COVID-19.
“In my opinion, getting this right is our most important objective of county government right now,” Board Chairman Mark Ozias said during a Monday work session.
Dr. Allison Unthank, Clallam County health officer, said the goal is to keep to COVID-19 case numbers low by catching outbreaks quickly.
“Our department has been working incredibly hard to keep things under control,” Unthank told commissioners.
“Without these positions, as we move to Phase 2 (of the state’s reopening plan), I do not believe we will be ready. I believe we would get caught off-guard, and we would have a large outbreak that we would not be able to control.”
Clallam County had 21 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of Monday.
Nineteen of those patients had recovered from their infections.
The Clallam County Board of Health voted unanimously last week to support Unthank’s recommendation for more staff.
Unthank presented Monday a $303,429 budget for COVID-19-related staffing through the end of 2020.
The recommendations include:
• A full-time nurse with public health experience. He or she would perform infection control, testing, contact tracing and data management functions.
• A full-time public health worker to lead the county’s contact tracing and case-management program.
• A full-time COVID-19 information coordinator who would respond to citizen information requests and disseminate public information.
• Environmental Health Specialist Jessica Pankey would work 30 hours per week as a COVID-19 outbreak response coordinator.
• Environmental Health Specialist Sue Waldrip would become a half-time specialist for COVID-19 safety and business plan review.
• Environmental Health Specialist Eli Owens would work half-time as COVID-19 shelter services coordinator.
• Unthank would continue to work full-time through July and move to a 30-hour week in August. Unthank was working as a half-time health officer before the COVID-19 pandemic struck earlier this year.
“I can see some of these as being super-critical positions,” Commissioner Randy Johnson said.
Clallam County had spent about $500,000 on COVID-19 response and is eligible for nearly $4.2 million in federal Cares Act funding, Johnson said in a memo.
County Administrator Rich Sill said the new hires would fall under a public safety exemption to a county hiring freeze.
“If this doesn’t fit the definition of public safety, I don’t know what does,” Johnson said.
Health care workers in Clallam County had tested 1,827 people for COVID-19 as of Monday. Of those, 1,798 tests were negative and eight were pending.
“Right now we’ve been able to adequately contract trace quickly because we get about two cases at a time,” Unthank said.
“If we got 10 cases at a time, which is what we have been told to anticipate as we start to reopen, we would not be able to contact trace that, and we wouldn’t be able to control that outbreak.”
The state could move into Phase 2 of Gov. Jay Inslee’s four-phase reopening plan June 1. Inslee has said the June 1 date is not guaranteed.
“What we’ve learned from other places around the world is that places with strong public health infrastructure were able to handle COVID-19 faster and open their economies faster and keep them open,” Unthank said.
“So that’s what we would like to do for Clallam County.”
Clallam County has kept COVID-19 in check largely due to the efforts of staff members providing guidance to long-term care facilities, Unthank said.
Health officials prevented “at least two” large-scale outbreaks in congregate settings that would have driven Clallam County’s case total into the hundreds, Unthank said.
“We know that the needs for that kind of group are going to escalate dramatically as the stay-at-home order starts to be relaxed,” Unthank said.
“We’re going to need much more than we’ve ever imaged before from the Department of Public Health.”
Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at [email protected].