Members of Vashon’s Emergency Operations Center addressed health and safety issues related to COVID-19 during a moderated live town hall-style broadcast hosted online by VashonBePrepared and The Backbone Campaign Saturday morning.
The goal of the event was to clarify key points about the illness caused by the worldwide novel coronavirus pandemic and provide information about resources available in the community. It followed a press conference Thursday with Gov. Jay Inslee, who extended a statewide stay-at-home order through May 4.
Officials from Public Health – Seattle & King County say social distancing measures are proving to be an effective weapon against the deadly coronavirus but that they must continue in order to contain the spread.
“If many, many people get sick, it will be much harder to help everyone. If fewer people get sick, we will have the capacity to try to help those who really need the help most so stay home, stay safe, don’t get sick,” said Rick Wallace, vice president of VashonBePrepared and manager of the Vashon Emergency Operations Center, during the broadcast.
But starting this week, islanders who are concerned they are infected or may have been exposed to the virus can choose from two locations on Vashon to receive limited testing for COVID-19.
In an email sent Saturday morning, Jessica Wesch, site medical director at Neighborcare Health at Vashon, wrote that the island clinic would roll-out evaluation and testing of patients with COVID-19-like symptoms — that’s cough, fever or breathing difficulties — in tents outside of the building. The services are available to Neighborcare patients by appointment after a phone consultation with a doctor or nurse practitioner. Patients are asked not to walk in or drive up to the clinic without calling ahead of time.
Neighborcare spokeswoman Mary Schilder added that Neighborcare is welcoming new patients, though they would need to register when calling for a consultation. Those who are uninsured can also schedule a phone call to speak with an eligibility specialist to explore insurance options. The specialist is Spanish-speaking and interpretation is available for other languages at no cost, she said.
As of Saturday, some Neighborcare patients were already on the schedule to receive evaluations and testing this week, Wesch said. In a brief follow-up conversation, she added that VashonBePrepared has been in conversation with leadership at Neighborcare and that the groups have focused on bringing whatever resources they can to the island. Testing at the clinic is exclusive to Neighborcare, she said, adding that if for some reason the clinic could not provide a test for someone who needed it, staff would begin making referrals to local programs such as VashonBePrepared.
A second testing site, at Mukai Farm & Garden, was opened Tuesday and will be run by the island’s volunteer Medical Reserve Corps on weekday afternoons according to Jim Bristow, a retired pediatric cardiologist, during the meeting.
“I want to emphasize as you’ve heard in the news that testing supplies are severely limited,” Bristow said, pausing to allow for a Spanish translation. “We’re working hard to get supplies to continue testing. Our hope is that we will be able to ramp testing up over the course of the next couple of weeks.”
Bristow added that only those with symptoms of cough, fever, shortness of breath or exposure to someone known to be infected would receive testing, by order of a primary physician. As of Monday, according to Bristow, VashonBePrepared is able to provide telephone screening for island residents who don’t have a primary care provider by calling 844-469-4554.
The test costs $50. VashonBePrepared will foot the bill for the tests at Mukai Farm & Gardens using donated funds, he said, if patients lack health insurance.
“We’d love to test everybody on the island, we just don’t have the resources to do it,” Bristow said, adding that even in places where the pandemic is most severe in the country, including Seattle, only about one in 13 tests for COVID-19 comes back positive.
“And just to be clear, most people who have symptoms that might be COVID-19 probably don’t have COVID-19,” he said. “And that’s why testing is so important; it helps us focus our resources to isolate and support those who actually have the disease.”
For Bill Moyer, executive director of The Backbone Campaign, that support begins with proper communication. The video conferencing platform Zoom was chosen to conduct the town hall to reach the widest audience possible. On Facebook, Moyer said there were as many as 248 actively watching live at one time, but since last weekend the broadcast has logged over 3,000 views cumulatively on social media and vashonresilience.org, a new clearinghouse for resources and online workshops the organization recently launched.
“Our connection to each other is crucial for our resiliency as a community,” Moyer said, adding that he has heard some criticism of the event’s format, specifically about the consecutive translation for Spanish speakers.
“I felt like it was important to do that and essential to do that,” he said, noting his appreciation that the breaks for translation forced speakers to slow down and make deliberate points. There were more questions submitted in Spanish for answers from the panelists during the broadcast than in English, Moyer added.
As the island continues to grapple with the new reality posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Moyer said he believes that local collaboration will be essential.
“To the extent that the Backbone Campaign can be a resource for people who want to take action, and a convener to help people self-organize and to celebrate the actions that are being taken, that’s what we strive to do,” he said.
Separately, last week, the island’s volunteer Medical Reserve Corps (MRC) recommended against establishing an on-island care center for COVID-19 patients, citing a lack of available health-care workers and a facility with necessary supplies. The MRC is working with Vashon Island Fire & Rescue on a contingency plan in case emergency calls exceed the island’s ambulance capacity.
Preventing on-island transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19 should remain the principal focus of the MRC, according to a press release.