By Paul Gottlieb
Olympic Peninsula News Group
The North Olympic Peninsula’s Democratic 24th District lawmakers are at odds with Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee in his regional approach to the COVID-19 pandemic, saying it puts Jefferson and Clallam counties at an unfair disadvantage.
“Gov. Inslee’s recent change to the Roadmap to Recovery has left Clallam and Jefferson counties at a standstill for no good reason,” state Sen. Kevin Van De Wege and state Reps. Steve Tharinger and Mike Chapman said Friday in a joint statement.
“This new plan relies on inconsistent metrics and an overly broad, regional approach for decision-making that does not reward the citizens and businesses in Clallam and Jefferson who have faithfully complied with the governor’s orders.”
They failed Friday to convince Inslee to change course on his COVID-19 reopening guidelines and want to thwart his effort to replace county health departments and boards with regional districts, a plan contained in legislation Inslee requested.
“We have lost faith that the governor is on a course to safely open Washington and beat COVID-19,” the three lawmakers said.
Van De Wege, a member of the Senate Health and Long Term Care Committee, led the delegation’s effort challenging Inslee’s phased approach to getting the state back on track during the pandemic.
The 14-year lawmaker and Sequim resident said Friday the governor’s office could not be swayed to consolidate Clallam and Jefferson counties into their own sub-region, which would allow their entry Monday from Phase 1 into the less restrictive Phase 2 stage of Inslee’s COVID-19 “Healthy Washington — Roadmap to Recovery.”
A governor’s office spokesman did not respond Friday and Saturday to requests for comment.
“The only reasons we’re not in Phase 2 are arbitrary reasons the governor decided to create,” Van De Wege said in an interview.
“They said, ‘If we do it for you, we’ll have to do it for all of the smaller counties.’”
In their statement prepared by Van De Wege, the legislators rejected Inslee’s regional mindset to fighting the pandemic.
“This is not a position we take lightly,” they said.
“But it is clear that the governor’s plan exhibits a disastrous disconnect with the realities of our communities and, as their elected representatives, we must demand a reopening plan that is fair and sound. The current plan is neither.”
They said it unfairly lumps the North Olympic Peninsula with Mason County and larger Kitsap County.
Mason County, population 66,000, includes the Washington Corrections Center in Shelton, which had 949 COVID cases as of Friday and 228 in the previous 30 days. The county had 2,102 cases.
That compares to 1,229 total in Clallam and Jefferson counties, combined population 107,000, as of Saturday.
In the pandemic metrics employed by Inslee, Clallam and Jefferson counties are under greater restrictions than King, Pierce and Snohomish counties, which Monday move into less restrictive Phase 2. Restaurants, for example, will reopen for indoor dining at 25 percent capacity.
“It’s absurd,” said Van De Wege, said, echoing the responses of health officers Dr. Allison Berry in Clalalm County and Dr. Tom Locke in Jefferson County, who both said earlier last week that the plan made no sense.
To qualify for Phase 2, regions must meet three of four thresholds.
Clallam, Jefferson, Kitsap and Mason counties collectively meet them for intensive-care-unit occupancy and positive test rates but fail for case rates and hospital admissions.
The 24th District delegation said Inslee is leaving Clallam and Jefferson counties at a standstill.
“He is reopening hot-spot counties based on poorly designed metrics that leave low-rate counties closed. This plan’s senseless punishment of counties with low COVID-19 rates leaves us no choice but to speak out in opposition,” they said in their statement.
“This regional approach takes away local input and decisions and ignores local health officer’s science-based knowledge.
“Transmission and case-rate metrics in Clallam and Jefferson counties prove we have worked well to control the COVID-19 pandemic and have a firm grasp on this situation.
“However, when grouped with widely dissimilar counties in an arbitrarily drawn region, our success is ignored.”
Inslee’s position “strains credulity” and “defies logic,” Chapman, the House deputy majority whip, said Friday.
“To be misrepresented and not be recognized for the hard work our citizens have done is a travesty.”
Tharinger is a senior member of the House Health Care and Wellness Committee.
“Our bed availability and all that shows that Clallam and Jefferson should be in Phase 2,” the five-term lawmaker said.
The legislators also oppose House Bill 1152 and its companion Senate Bill 5173, which would establish regional health districts.
It requires counties to form them beginning Jan. 1, 2023 and would repeal laws establishing and operating boards of health and city and county health departments.
A 15-person working group of state legislators, health officials and city and county representatives would present recommendations to the state secretary of health by Jan. 1, 2022 and performance measures by July 1, 2022.
“The legislature finds the COVID-19 pandemic has been the most difficult challenge in Washington’s public health history since the 1918 flu pandemic,” according to a text of the bill at leg.wa.gov.
A House bill analysis at the website concluded the pandemic exposed health system shortcomings under study for more than 10 years.
“Washington’s current public health system was not able to consistently monitor and track the pandemic, staff the many required missions, adequately address the health inequities, and implement standard approaches to disease containment,” the bill says.
The regional health districts would contain populations of more than 250,000 residents.
Proponents have said the bill would address politicization on health boards, an issue that has become acute during the pandemic in some counties but not in Clallam and Jefferson, the 24th District lawmakers said.
“The premise is that there is a real problem, and I don’t think we have a problem on our local board of health,” said Chapman, who served on Clallam’s board, including as chair, when he was a county commissioner for four terms.
Tharinger, whose health care committee has held a hearing on the bill, said district residents “are kind of wound up” about the proposal.
Tharinger said any prescriptive measures are unacceptable but might consider forming the stakeholders group to examine issues ripe for examination.
“I don’t think the bill will pass in its present form,” he said.
“It needs a lot of work.”
Van De Wege and Chapman are opposed to the legislation in any form.
“I don’t see a system that’s systemically broken, especially where I represent and where I work,” Chapman said.
“And I don’t thing that regionalizing is working, as we’ve seen with the reopening plan.
“These are local decisions.”
SB 5173 “is not going to move at all,” Van De Wege predicted.
He said there are other solutions to conservative counties firing their health officers or forcing them to quit.
“Thursday morning, when they announced the reopening, it pretty much killed that bill,” he said.