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With ‘unsatisfactory’ help from White House, Inslee looks elsewhere for COVID-19 tests

Gov. Jay Inslee and other Washington leaders. (Getty Images)

At least 421 deaths, and nearly 9100 cases. Those are the latest coronavirus numbers in Washington state, according to the state Department of Health. Those numbers continue upward each day at the state and many county levels, but the rate they’re rising is trending slower, and is evidence we are flattening the curve with mitigation efforts.

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It’s an indication that we will soon enter the next phase of the pandemic, according to health experts.

But as we keep hearing from Washington officials, we are not out of the woods yet.

“Unfortunately it’s really difficult to know if we are at peak activity,” said state health officer Kathy Lofy during a Monday press briefing. “We generally do not know that we have peaked in the state until we see about a 2 to 3 week decline in all of our data indicators, and we have not seen that yet.”

She says it’s also tough to predict future virus activity.

“It’s largely dependent on how well we continue to maintain social distancing practices,“ Lofy explained. “Most of the population is still susceptible to COVID-19 or is not immune yet, so if we let up on social distancing practices, we will likely see an increase in activity.”

There are also still significant testing issues.

“We are in a very, very unsatisfactory position,” Governor Inslee said Monday.

“This has been one of my greatest frustrations where the federal government has not acted with as much intensity of leadership that we need. We have hundreds of people that we would like to test today, including some at our long term care facilities that have had people infected in their facility that cannot get tested and the reason is that there’s not enough test kits — a swab, a vile with transport medium in it. Those kits are simply not available to us,” Inslee added, calling the lack of supplies massively frustrating.

Several Republican and Democratic members of Washington’s congressional delegation signed a letter pressing the Trump Administration to get Washington the supplies, warning that not having them undermined Washington’s ability to identify cases and has “serious repercussions for public health.”

In the meantime, Inlsee is shopping.

“As governor, I’m actually trying to procure them everywhere in the world right now. We are doing everything humanly possible but there’s a world shortage of these,” Inslee said.

And the governor says the kits aren’t the only issue.

“We also have to dramatically increase the ability to analyze these samples – meaning the analytic capacity of the whole system has to increase several fold, and … I don’t believe the federal government has come to terms with how much we have to increase testing capability,” Inslee said.

“We’re going to have to increase it dramatically as we come through this epidemic to allow people to safely return to work. I can’t overstate the need for increased capacity … the need for federal help on this, ” he added.

Otherwise, more tough decisions will have to be made.

“We’ve had to make triage decisions where if you have two places that need the kit, you’ve got to make hard decisions about the way to save the most life, and we’re making those decisions every day and they’re very, very difficult,” Inlsee explained, noting the state was doing everything it could but needs a lot more help.

Later Monday, Lofy said there was some progress made when the state was able to secure an order on its own for several thousand kits, but more are needed.

All of the needed supplies and analysis play a big role in getting to that so-called “Phase 2” – code for when at least some of these restrictions can start to be lifted.

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“We need to have the rapid ability to test folks who might develop symptoms because once we get down to very few cases, to assure that we don’t spring back, it’s going to be critical that we quickly identify folks infected with COVID, and get them isolated and then be able to contact their close contacts and get them quarantined,” said State Secretary of Health John Wiesman.

It will take more than that to start lifting the lock down, including making sure there is also plenty of capacity in case a second wave hits, as well all the medical protective gear – or PPE – and places people can go to isolate or quarantine if they don’t have a home or can’t stay at their own.

Once that’s all settled, they can start to consider next steps.

“We’ll need to be thinking about how we carefully reverse engineer lifting some of these community mitigation pieces that we have in place,” Wiesman said.

But to even consider that they will have to really good data.

“To be able to quickly identify any outbreaks in a particular area, so that if we need to – immediately in a smaller area – re-implement some of these measures,” Wiesman explained.

The governor’s current stay-at-home order lasts through at least May 4. A later order closed schools for in-person education for the rest of the school year, making it clear that districts should fine tune their distance learning models in case the closure needed to be further extended into the fall.

Follow Hanna Scott on Twitter or email her here

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