by Carolyn Bick
Amidst the wildfires and smoke blanketing the state, Washington State reached 2,000 deaths from COVID-19 and more than 80,000 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus, Gov. Jay Inslee announced in a press conference on Sept. 15.
Though much of the early part of Inslee’s press conference focused on the wildfires that have devastated the state, wiping towns like eastern Washington’s Malden almost completely off the map, Inslee also said that he wanted Washingtonians to stay vigilant and wear masks, even after the smoke clears.
Inslee said that the areas of the state that currently show the most viral activity appear to center around college campuses. Using Pullman’s Washington State University campus as an example, Inslee said the campus has seen at least 800 cases to date. Some days saw a 70 percent positivity rate per day, depending on how much testing was done that day, Washington State’s Department of Health’s Health Secretary John Wiesman said. That campus was one of the first to reopen its doors for students, and it appears that these infections occurred because students were partying and socializing as usual, without paying heed to the pandemic and extremely contagious nature of the virus.
But Inslee warned that this is just a precursor of things to come, if Washingtonians don’t take the virus seriously and gather together indoors. As the autumn arrives, Inslee said that more of the state may see a similar trend to Pullman, as more and more people stay indoors, and the virus moves “into the living rooms, and the kitchens, and the dens, and the dormitories, and the apartments.”
“These are not modest bumps. These are explosions that can happen, and in smaller communities, not just in downtown Seattle,” Inslee warned. “Some businesses have not been able to be open, which is incredibly painful to them. And to go through all that economic dislocation, and have our social activities blow this thing up again — we just can’t allow that to happen. … We just can’t have groups of people without masks, without being socially distanced, who are not in our household.”
Wiesman later said that people need to change their behavior, and that students returning to campuses should not hold or go to parties, if the state has any chance of preventing more infections and possible deaths on these campuses.
In response to a question from a King5 reporter, Inslee did not commit one way or the other to reopening schools statewide in the autumn, saying that the science and data will drive this decision. He said some wide scale testing might be available to possibly help return younger students to schools, but “that is a way off,” and the state must look at the efficacy of said testing as well as its ability to deploy it.
In response to a question about school reopening from Austin Jenkins from the Northwest News Network, Wiesman said there should be “some thought should be given to bringing the younger kids back first, in perhaps a hybrid model” with appropriate precautions like physical distancing and masking, but that “schools have to think through how ready they are to switch to this curriculum.”
“Our encouragement is, if they are considering that, start slow, start with the youngest folks, and see how that goes and monitor progress, before one moves further,” Wiesman said.
Joined by the UW’s Dr. Crystal Raymond, a climate adaptation specialist, Inslee also spoke at length about the vast damage this season’s wildfires have caused. He said that more than 620,000 acres of the state have burned in the current fire season, and more than 807,000 acres have burned in fires in the current year-to-date. and warned that the state’s fire seasons will only get worse, due to climate change.
Raymond echoed the warning that the state’s fire seasons will only worsen, and said that though this season feels worse than usual, the current conditions aren’t a surprise to fire scientists. Though there have been major wildfires in past centuries, she said, there are many more people who live in the paths of wildfires now, which means the damage to humans is much more severe.
“As a result of that, there has been growing concern among many people that we will see these types of large fires in western Oregon and Washington, and that is what we are seeing happening now,” Raymond said. “Washington has been somewhat spared this year. Things could have been worse, and that’s because we had less of a drought than Oregon experienced. But with climate change, we expect to see drier conditions and more frequent droughts happening here in Washington, as well, so we may not be as lucky in the future.”
Raymond also said that with these fires comes worsening air quality, as the area is currently experiencing. She said the future of the state rests on committing to effective climate change solutions, as well as vegetation management and urban land management.
In response to Jenkins, Inslee said that there has been “some effort” to get respirators out to outdoor agricultural workers. Wiesman said that the “normal process” for an organization that is looking to procure masks that can filter out harmful smoke particles for its workers “would be to go through their local county emergency management and see if they have any. And if they don’t, to put a request into the state emergency operations center.”
These masks must be N95 or above to filter out harmful smoke particles. Wiesman said he did not have the information immediately on him to know whether those requests have been made.
Editor’s Note: This article originally referred to Washington State University as the University of Washington and has been updated (9/15/20).
Featured image is a screenshot from Gov. Jay Inslee’s press conference on Sept. 15, 2020.