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Cowlitz County's COVID-19 cases reach 60, a rise fueled by close contacts

Cowlitz County's COVID-19 cases reach 60, a rise fueled by close contacts

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Cowlitz County’s number of confirmed COVID-19 cases increased by 14 over the weekend and Monday to a total of 60, but county health officials still don’t believe the rise signals a community-wide surge in cases.

They also urged those celebrating Cinco de Mayo on Tuesday to remember the importance of social distancing.

So far, 19 of the county’s coronavirus patients have recovered.

COVID-19 Incident Management Team spokesman Ralph Herrera said the vast majority of the new cases are close personal contacts of other positive patients. That means they don’t appear to be cases where someone became sick from a stranger at the grocery store or a bank, for example.

“It isn’t anything we weren’t expecting to see,” Herrera said Monday. “What has consistently been the case, at least in our situation in Cowlitz County, is we’re not seeing the broad community spread ... which is what would be a bigger concern.”

As of Monday, no Cowlitz County patients have died, and none of the patients is hospitalized, Herrera said. “Recovered” patients are those who, 28 days after either experiencing symptoms or taking a COVID-19 test, are alive and not hospitalized.

Officials released no further information about the new cases. However, on Saturday Cowlitz County Commissioner Dennis Weber told a Daily News editor that family members of some of the infected Foster Farms workers had been getting sick, and that the county was considering using the old Love Overwhelming building in Kelso to isolate or quarantine them.

That plan appears unlikely to take shape. Officials were planning to use the former shelter to quarantine COVID-19 positive patients who couldn’t safely isolate at home, such as those in high-risk groups or who live in large households with potential exposure to the virus, Herrera said. Officials have already spent a portion of a Department of Commerce grant to refurbish the space.

However, that facility may no longer be used out of privacy concerns, Herrera said. Just as the IMT isn’t releasing the addresses of known cases, they’d prefer to not release information about any facilities used to isolate patients.

“Currently there is no one staying in the facility, and it now appears unlikely that it will be able to be used if patient privacy and confidentiality can not be assured for residents that would be placed there,” Herrera said.

He stressed, however, that the decision hasn’t been finalized.

Herrera reiterated Monday that the IMT’s policy is to no longer specify which COVID-19 cases are related to Foster Farms employees, or employees of any business, unless the need arises, such as from a sustained spike of cases at the same location. At the last count given last week, 16 workers at the Kelso chicken processing plant had tested positive for the virus. Roughly one-third of the facility’s 600-employee workforce was tested.

Beyond privacy laws over health information, releasing too much information on specific cases could jeopardize people’s employment and make health officials’ jobs harder, Herrera said.

“Take recent reports, unconfirmed at this point, that there were some employers in Cowlitz County who were essentially laying off or sending employees home without pay, merely because they were the spouse or family member of an individual that was employed at Foster Farms ... Just employed at Foster Farms, not even necessarily having tested negative or positive, or tested at all. Merely because they were an employee.”

“That created a situation for us where we started to encounter individuals who were reluctant to participate in testing,” he continued. “That’s problematic when we can’t identify the scope or range of a particular issue or problem at a facility like Foster Farms or any other location in Cowlitz County. ... I certainly don’t want my spouse or a loved one to be adversely affected merely because of their relationship to me.”

Herrera said officials also plan to remind any would-be celebrators of Cinco de Mayo — the anniversary of the Mexican Army’s 1862 victory over French forces at the Battle of Puebla — to continue practicing social distancing.

“Would-be Cinco de Mayo party-goers would be just the latest challenge that accompanies the widespread uneasiness and anxiety in our county and others as we begin to transition into the different phases of re-opening,” Herrera said Monday. “We will be messaging today the need to stay the course.”

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