Coronavirus risk remains low on island, health officials say

As far as anyone knows, there are no cases of coronavirus on Whidbey Island and the risk is either “low” or “extremely low,” depending on the source of the assessment.

But that hasn’t stopped many people from being understandably concerned, or even a bit freaked.

Island County Public Health Director Keith Higman said he was busy answering calls all weekend after the news broke about a cluster of cases at an adult care facility in Kirkland. As of Monday night, there were six death from the virus in the nation, all of them in Washington state and half from the nursing home.

Higman said he spoke to people with a range of concerns. Some of the calls were from agencies such as Island Transit, which had questions about how to prepare. Some were from people with the sniffles who wanted to get tested for coronavirus. Some were even concerned because they had been around someone of Asian descent, a notion he hopes to discourage.

On Monday, Higman said public health was consulted by Coupeville officials about whether the Musselfest event should be held this upcoming weekend. The answer, he said, is that the risk is low.

“We advised them that it’s way too early with the existing numbers of cases to make those considerations,” he said.

“But I think they were good questions to ask,” he added.

On Sunday, the Oak Harbor School District notified families that a North Whidbey Middle School staff member’s spouse was a first responder at last week’s coronavirus outbreak at the Life Care Center in Kirkland. The first responder was among the firefighters quarantined in Kirkland.

Public Health recommended that the staff member stay home for the 14-day period recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to the school district. The staff member’s classroom was sanitized.

“The staff member and spouse are not known to have the virus and do not display any symptoms,” the notice states. “These measures are purely precautionary.”

Public Health isn’t currently investigating anyone for coronavirus. One person tested earlier in the county was negative.

WhidbeyHealth Medical Center sent out a notice Feb. 28 that calls the coronavirus risk on the island “extremely low.”

“The risk for catching the influenza virus is much greater,” the notice states. “Washing your hands often is the best defense against any virus.”

Higman pointed out that this is the middle of the flu season, which complicates the detection and response to the coronavirus. For health care workers, the universal precautions they take with patients who have respiratory symptoms is the same for the flu or coronavirus.

Oak Harbor Fire Chief Ray Merrill said such precautions include a splash mask and a respirator.

Many news stories have explained that the throw-away face masks don’t protect people from getting a virus, though they can help prevent someone with the virus from spreading it. Nonetheless, stories are circulating around the island about people stealing or hoarding face masks.

The schools on Whidbey Island are making extra efforts in disinfecting and cleaning, focusing on hard surfaces that students touch. Students who come to school sick are evaluated by a nurse. Staff is emphasizing the importance of hand washing and other habits that prevent the spread of viruses.

Higman predicts that public health will remain very busy as staff members help the community prepare for the coronavirus. Answering phone calls alone is requiring staff to be shifted.

Higman said a lot is still not known about the virus, including its fatality rate. He opined that a number of factors have stoked fears over the virus. It’s novel, there’s no vaccine, there’s no tested treatment and there’s a huge amount of media coverage.

Watching the spread of the disease across the earth is frightening to the general public, he said.

“It’s important to remember that a significant number of people who get coronavirus are going to be just fine,” he said.