Last Saturday, a panel of experts and volunteers answered pressing questions submitted by island residents during a 90-minute long town hall-style broadcast moderated by islander Jeff Hoyt. It was the second such live-streamed event this month gathering members of the island’s Emergency Operations Center to address health and safety issues related to COVID-19 and the impact of the virus in the community.
Vashon Island Fire & Rescue Chief Charlie Krimmert, who will celebrate 20 years at the department Friday, was the first guest to speak. All things considered, he said, the island was faring well in the crisis with fewer than five confirmed cases. But as government and health officials weigh loosening a number of restrictions and reopening states, including in Washington, Krimmert cautioned against complacency and underestimating the power of the virus.
“It will continue to spread, it will continue to make people sick, and will continue to kill people, and because of this, I want to encourage you to be vigilant with your efforts to protect yourself and your loved ones,” he said. “Don’t become a servant to the virus, spreading it to strangers and loved ones. Continue to stay informed, stay focused, stay six feet apart and mask up. This is a community effort and we need everybody doing it.”
A report from the Institute for Disease Modeling released Monday warns of a rebound in new cases that could overwhelm the health care system unless strategies such as significant increases in testing for COVID-19, and detailed contact tracing of those who have contracted the virus, are implemented in addition to social distancing measures.
Contact tracing involves a lot of detective work on the part of public health officials to identify new cases of illness quickly and ensure those who are infected limit their contact with others, with the goal of reducing the spread of disease, said island medical reserve corps member (MRC), Dr. Zach Miller. He said a potential surge of new COVID-19 cases is likely once Inslee’s stay at home order is lifted, while hard to forecast with accuracy, underscoring how important it is to find those who are sick before they pass the virus on.
One effective way of curbing the spread is by wearing face masks when out in public, notably in grocery stores or places with greater concentrations of people in close proximity to one another. Basic paper or cloth masks will do, reserving those of the highest filtration grade such as N95 masks for health care workers. The idea is to protect others from exposure to aerosols and prevent droplet spread of the virus, one method of transmission more effective than initially thought, Miller said.
MRC member Dr. Jim Bristow said he couldn’t predict what health officials would recommend as far as wearing masks in public after the stay at home order is officially lifted.
“I think a lot will depend on exactly what’s happening with this virus in the community,” he said, adding that good handwashing is key when it comes to protection against COVID-19 and offers greater protection than gloves. He noted later that researchers are only beginning to understand the complexity of the virus and the potentially fatal complications it poses to those who become sick beyond the virus’s distinguishment as a respiratory illness, in some cases causing blood clots, and heart and kidney issues.
Testing is now available on the island both through the MRC at Mukai Farm & Garden weekday afternoons and at the Neighborcare Health clinic at Sunrise Ridge for those who are symptomatic. This week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention expanded the list of symptoms telling of possible COVID-19 infection to include aches and pains, diarrhea, sore throat and loss of taste or smell in addition to fatigue, fever and dry cough. A doctor’s referral is required in order to receive a test, but MRC members can provide a testing referral for those without a primary care physician. The site at Mukai will remain open throughout the summer, though Bristow said right now volunteers aren’t seeing much activity, having tested close to 2% of the island’s population so far.
The months ahead will be crucial for curbing infections in the state and nation, especially as public gatherings are gradually permitted again and communities work together to restore a semblance of normalcy. Health officials are warning that a devastating second wave of infections could follow this winter, a grim possibility that Bristow noted is complicated by the prevalence of asymptomatic infections, or those who may be contagious but who haven’t yet developed symptoms.
Bristow said that those who can continue to self isolate in the near future should continue to do so to the extent possible, as a sudden return of public life may jeopardize the ability of health officials to track new infections, thus endangering lives.
“I think my primary concern is that when restrictions are loosened, things will go well for a few weeks, and everybody will think we’re over the hump, and then we’ll really get slammed,” he said. “The more we continue to social distance, the more we follow the current guidelines when possible, then the less spread there will be.”
The known death toll in the United States reached 58,000 as of press time. But it has also claimed a staggering number of jobs nation-wide, including 800 people on Vashon who have filed to receive regular unemployment benefits.
VashonBePrepared volunteer Deborah Diamond, who worked for the Internal Revenue Service for 33 years before retiring, said the group is expecting several hundred more to have filed, including those who are self-employed, by the end of this week. She emphasized that the system for processing unemployment claims in the state is now working, overburdened for weeks after more than 11,000 jobs were lost in March, pushing the unemployment rate past 5% and climbing according to the Employment Security Department.
Not sure if you should file? Do it anyway, every week, Diamond said.
“The very important thing is to file. If you wonder if you might be qualified, file, and that’s where they’ll make a case-by-case determination and determine if you qualify.”
If you are self-employed, go through with the regular unemployment application and wait to be denied, with other steps to follow.
Diamond said many are reporting that they have received notices claiming they are ineligible for benefits after applying. (There is a process to appeal). Don’t be discouraged if this happens to you, she said. One common hangup concerns your 401(k): If you are asked whether you are receiving retirement benefits from your employer, check “no.” This question is about whether you receive regular, consistent retirement benefits and is not asking you to disclose that you have a 401(k).
Be assured that unemployment benefits are retroactive to when you first became unemployed, Diamond added. You can also check the status of your federal stimulus payment online at irs.gov/coronavirus/get-my-payment if you have not received it yet.
For those who have not yet filed a 2019 tax return and need to, you can do so for free on the IRS website in order to receive your stimulus payment. The IRS tax filing deadline has been extended to July 15. A tax aide from the AARP will not be available in June at the Vashon Library to help islanders file, as all in-library programs and building uses have been canceled by the King County Library System through the end of August.
Meanwhile, as island social service providers prepare for their annual GiveBIG fundraising push in a difficult economic climate, Carol Goertzel, executive director of Vashon Youth and Family Services, said the agency is collaborating with organizations to connect islanders with resources they need for relief, including the Interfaith Council to Prevent Homelessness for rental assistance. She noted that about half of the available funds to supplement cost of living expenses for the month of April supported Latino families who are uniquely vulnerable in the crisis due to job loss and fears of deportation due to citizenship status.
Before the panelists took questions from viewers, Rick Wallace, vice president of VashonBePrepared, named off several other ways generous Vashon residents can come to the aid of their neighbors. VashonBePrepared has launched a major fundraisingeffort in partnership with island social service providers, distributing $25,000 this month to pay for groceries, meals and rent relief. More information is available online. Islanders can find calls for specific volunteer opportunities in the organization’s daily situation reports available by email — sign up on voiceofvashon.org. But the main way he said islanders can help flatten the curve is to do their part by staying home.
“Maybe one of the most important things you can do is not get sick,” he said, noting that there is currently no vaccine available for COVID-19.
Hoyt asked Wallace what advice to give those who miss face time with friends and family and whether they can expect to reunite with one another soon after restrictions are lifted. Wallace responded by saying he misses his daughters and grandchildren, noting his five-year-old grandson’s transition to online learning at home.
“That’s maybe the best it’s going to get for a while, is us making these contacts, these intimate contacts, through a video screen on a computer,” he said.