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By Teya Heidenreich

“Our message to the public is simple,” Satpal Sidhu said. “Plan and prepare, but don't panic.” He said to follow the advice of experts like the Department of Health, which has a hotline (360-778-6100) and a website that is frequently updated. 

Sidhu, the Whatcom County executive, declared a public health emergency on Tuesday, March 10. During a Whatcom County Council meeting later that day, officials and members of the public discussed concerns, plans and advice about COVID-19, commonly known as the novel coronavirus. 

“Today, we received lab confirmation that [an] outbreak of COVID-19 has arrived in Whatcom County,” Sidhu told the board. An additional case was announced late last week.

Sidhu explained that the lab result was for a woman in her 60s who had been hospitalized but was discharged when her condition improved. He said the health department is now investigating the risk to other community members who may have been exposed.

In the second case, a construction worker from Snohomish County employed on the site of Western’s new residence hall tested positive for COVID-19. The risk to the campus community is considered low. The worker and his close contacts are in self-quarantine.

Sidhu referred to the outbreak as a dynamic threat and said there was an urgent need to take the most effective action possible to protect the community.

During the open session, where members of the public can speak to the council, part-time dog breeder and 32-year Bellingham resident James Reilly spoke tearfully about his concerns regarding COVID-19.

“Please, everybody work together on this, or we’re gonna lose what we enjoy so much,” Reilly said to the council.

Reilly expressed concern that livestock could also get the disease. In additional conversation after the council meeting, he said this could increase its spread to humans. 

Though there have not been reports of pets or domestic animals becoming sick with COVID-19, the CDC says that, rarely, animal coronaviruses can infect people exposed to infected animals and then spread among people, and that people should restrict contact with animals while they are sick with COVID-19.

The County Council approved an emergency budget for COVID-19, which was originally proposed at $150,000 but raised to $250,000 after discussion. The budget is committed to preventative measures, such as distributing supplies to senior homes and skilled nursing facilities, and paying for overtime work of county employees to make up for those who can’t work.

The council also passed a proclamation, signed by Sidhu authorizing county departments to use their powers by undertaking actions in response to the COVID-19 outbreak without regard to “time-consuming procedures and formalities.” 

“I just want to thank everyone who is working overtime and making sure we can do the best we can for our county,” Council member Carol Frazey said. “And the health department is working a lot, so thank you.”

Council member Tyler Byrd asked that residents be good neighbors and look out for what others around them need, and to avoid attending events.

Byrd also mentioned that people 60 and older are advised to stay home when possible and to stay updated with the Washington State Department of Health website. 

Later in the week, public health officials nationwide extended that advice to people of all ages in order to “flatten the curve,” a term that first appeared in a 2007 paper published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Flattening the curve” means to distribute the number of cases of an illness over time, in order to avoid overwhelming the health care system’s capacity.

In 2016, the last time it reported figures to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which tracks health data, the United States had 894,574 hospital beds, about 89,000 fewer than were available in 2000. The United States Census estimates the population is around 327.16 million people, which would mean that, if the entire population were seriously ill at the same time, there would be one available bed for every 366 people. 

PeaceHealth St. Joseph, the primary hospital serving Whatcom County, claims 253 beds in its main facility, although there are additional beds in rehab and therapeutic facilities around the county. Whatcom County has an estimated 225,685 residents according to the Census.

Other council members encouraged county residents to participate, and to prepare for long periods of voluntary quarantine in order to protect older neighbors and people with underlying health concerns.
“Help us by being prepared. Maybe don't be over-prepared, because your being over-prepared may make it so your neighbor isn't prepared,” said Councilmember Ben Elenbaas. “So an appropriate amount of toilet paper.”

Follow The Western Front on Facebook and Twitter for ongoing updates. Our full coverage of how the novel coronavirus is affecting Whatcom County is here.

If you're interested in contributing to the Front's reporting during this crisis, you are invited to participate in our open newsroom project, where experienced reporters and editors will work alongside the community to gather and verify information that leads Whatcom County toward shared solutions. To participate, please fill out this form.


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