By Victoria Fowler
Gazette Reporter 

Emergency declared:

How COVID-19 is affecting Whitman County


March 19, 2020

Whitman County Commissioners authorized an emergency declaration for COVID-19 in Whitman County with an unanimous vote from all three commissioners Monday morning.

This emergency declaration is primarily meant to open up additional resources for emergency personal.

Commissioner Michael Largent said this emergency declaration might not be as important as the one on the state and federal level, but he believes it’s prudent that we recognize officially that we are in a time of emergency and we’ll need all the resources that we can gather to respond appropriately.

“The declaration just opens up more avenues to assess things,” said Bill Tensfeld, Whitman County emergency management director. “That’s just on the response side. On the recovery side, we have the Small Business Administration with low-interest loans and stuff and they’ll do another declaration sometime this week to free up more money there for small businesses in the region.”

Whitman County along with 31 other counties in Washington are eligible for Small Business Administration Disaster Loan assistance, according to the Small Business Administration. Of the 39 counties in Washington 32 qualified for eligibility.

This will unlock low-interest loans to help small businesses meet their financial obligations and cover operating expenses during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Tensfeld mentioned the Department of Emergency Management will be operating an emergency operation center in the auditorium of the public service building. The EOC will be put together by the end of March 16 or the morning of March 17.

“It’s going to be fluid for the next couple of weeks because as we do the social distancing to try to keep everyone healthy you’re going to have some of us who will end up with the bug and you’re going to try to enforce as much as you can for people to stay home,” Tensfeld said.

Troy Henderson, Whitman County Public Health director, said at this time there are eight sample results received in the county with coronavirus testing, but there are still no positive cases in the county.

“The fundamental issue that we have had for the past couple of months is that science is built on the foundation of data and we don’t have enough data for me to tell you what the risk in Whitman County is, whether the disease is in Whitman County, just because we haven’t been able to sample enough,” Henderson said. “I feel confident that the east side, as we can see from Spokane to some degree, that we are lagging behind what the west side is. Our future kind of looks like where they are now.”

Henderson estimated that possibly four to six weeks down the road, the county could see similar results that are being shown on the west side of the state.

“I think we are ok today,” Henderson said. “I think it’s fine for you (county commissioners) to take this week to figure out what you’re going to do.”

Largent said with county operations, it should all be driven by science and the recommendations of the public health department.

“We might adjust county operations, either today, tomorrow or in the future and we will discuss how we will continue to cater to county operations,” Largent said. “We need to continue to be cautious in what we do. We aren’t closing the courthouse as of now, but that does not mean that department heads and elected officials can’t use their discretion to discuss their operations.”

With operations at the courthouse being maintained at this point, Largent encouraged residents that if they don’t have a need to come to the courthouse in person to not do so. He added that if we have the capacity to do things online or via telephone, to use that option instead. “Any person here is more important than any operation here.”

Other offices and organizations are making changes in the county to keep employees and the public healthy and safe.

Whitman Hospital and Medical Center announced March 13 it is limiting visitors for patients’ safety.

The press release stated this policy will be in place until the transmission of COVID-19 is no longer perceived as a threat to patients, staff and community.

If a patient is pending a COVID-19 test result or has tested positive, no visitors will be allowed. Any visitors that are allowed must stay in the patient’s room the entire visit and once they leave to exit the medical center.

All visitors entering the hospital will be screened before entering.

WHMC has a list of restrictions with this new policy. The gift shop, cafe and community wellness classes have all been closed or suspended until further notice.

More information regarding the new policy at WHMC can be found on the WHMC website or their Facebook page.

Washington State Patrol also closed its offices to the public. This includes the headquarters in Spokane, as well as its Ritzville, Colfax and Colville offices until further notice.

With the recent order from Governor Jay Inslee on shutting down restaurants, bars, entertainment and recreational facilities different business owners across the county have started to feel the affects on how this will change day-to-day operations and lifestyles.

Restaurants will need to be closed, except for take-out and home delivery options.

Top Notch, informed residents through Facebook saying that starting March 17 take-out will be available from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. “We will keep our business going unless we are told otherwise. Thank you to everyone in this trying time.”

Under the umbrella of Gov. Inslee’s announcement, entertainment, recreational and other businesses where large groups can gather or are in close contact are also required to close its doors.

These may include theaters, bowling alleys, beauty salons/barber shops, museums, etc.

This ban went into effect at midnight Monday, March 16, and will be operational for two weeks and may possibly be extended.

“For small businesses we don’t have many other resources and I’m not sure of what resources are out there. For those that work here, they have bills they need to pay,” said Gina Cornelius, owner of Gina’s Salon Rae. “We also had just opened new tanning beds two weeks ago, which were a part of a six-month planning process.”

Cornelius mentioned with this virus she is worried about many different aspects outside of the business as well. After having a major emergency surgery earlier this year and recently returning to business the beginning of the month, more challenges are arising.

“I’m also an at-home care provider for my mother who is 73 and has COPD,” Cornelius said. “I have to make sure I stay healthy and need to keep her, myself and my family safe. We are just taking it day by day.”

Cornelius wants to encourage community members to take this seriously as it can effect a lot of people more severely than one would think. She added that overall, safety is what is going to come first for her and her business.


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