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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

'We will have major social distancing after May 4th.' WA governor offers reality check in interview.

Austin Jenkins
Northwest News Network
In an interview Tuesday, WA Gov. Jay Inslee said Washington residents should prepare for current social distancing restrictions to continue past May 4.

With his current stay home order set to expire in less than a week, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee on Tuesday strongly suggested  that, even though the COVID-19 peak appears to have passed, he intends to leave in place most of the current restrictions for the foreseeable future.

“The major part of our order, I believe, will stay in place after May 4th,” Inslee said in a one-on-one interview on TVW’s “Inside Olympia” program.

That stay-the-course stance stands in contrast to states like Colorado that are beginning to reopen this week.

“That decision may be perfect for Colorado, I don’t know Colorado’s situation enough to be judgmental about it,” Inslee said, adding that he would generally trust the decision-making of Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, a fellow Democrat.

Inslee did not say whether he intends to extend his current stay home order or will issue a revised order, and for how much longer the restrictions will remain in place. However, he made clear that Washington residents should not expect a dramatic change in the status quo beginning next week.

“I do not believe that we will have the infection rate or the fatality rate or the hospital admission for COVID-like symptoms rate, none of those numbers will be low enough to justify removing major social distancing strategies,” Inslee said.

The current order requirespeople to stay home except for essential trips, closes all "nonessential" businesses and bans gatherings.

As of Monday, Washington had recorded 13,686 COVID-19 cases and 765 deaths from the virus. The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 dropped below 500 as of Sunday, but the state continues to report more than 200 new cases a day.

“One of the most frustrating numbers, I have to tell you, is our number of infections per day because that is stubborn and has not been going down as we would have liked in the last week to 10 days,” Inslee said.

Inslee is also concerned because new modeling by the Institute for Disease Modeling in Bellevue suggests that, in King County, the COVID-19 transmission rate is still at or near one, which means that for every person who has the virus, they’re transmitting it to one other person. In other parts of the state, Inslee said, the number might actually be above one.

“We have to get that number down lower to reduce the number of infections,” Inslee said.

In recent days, the governor has announced the partial reopening of the construction sector and outdoor recreation. He’s expected to announce soon the resumption of some elective surgeries, if hospitals can show they have sufficient personal protective equipment.

Beyond that, Inslee indicated that further re-openings would be decided on a day-by-day basis with no target dates in place.

“Seven million Washingtonians would love to have a date that we can push the 'go' button … I may be first in line of wanting to be able to provide that date,” Inslee said.

The governor did indicate that he may be able to provide a roadmap for which industries could open next – what he described as “tranches.” The next “most likely” sector that could reopen, he said, would be retail establishments with strict limits on capacity and social distancing.

The partial reopening of restaurants, bars and other similar businesses would likely come later.

Inslee is clearly eager to move into what he calls “Phase two” of the state’s response to the global pandemic. Under that phase, the state would be able to replace some social distancing requirements with more robust testing, contact tracing and isolation and quarantine measures.

On Tuesday, Inslee said the state expects to get a significant shipment of testing swabs from the federal government in the next week or two.

“We hope that will happen and we will believe that when we see it, but we desperately need those supplies,” Inslee said.

The governor also said that an additional 700 Washington National Guard members will deploy to help staff a new team of roughly 1,500 contact tracers – people whose job is to contact individuals who came in close proximity to someone who tested positive for COVID-19. Inslee hopes to have that team in place by the second week of May.

Already, 600 guard members are helping with the distribution of supplies from food banks in Washington communities and another 100 are assisting with COVID-19 testing in communities like Grays Harbor County.

“At the peak, this will be a pretty large deployment,” said Karina Shagren, a spokesperson for Washington’s Military Department.

In addition to more testing and contact tracing capacity, Inslee said strict isolation and quarantine will be required during “Phase Two.” He gave the example of a person who tests positive and then goes home to their family to isolate.

“That family’s going to need to isolate as well and that means that family is going to have to be disciplined, that they literally do not leave their home for 14 days and that’s hard,” Inslee said.

That will likely require a system of delivering groceries and other needed supplies to families in isolation and quarantine, although Inslee offered no details on how that might work. For people who can’t isolate at home, or are homeless, Inslee said the state will have isolation and quarantine facilities available.

Asked to address criticism that he hasn’t given Washington residents enough of a roadmap for reopening or enough clarity on what metrics he’s using, Inslee said he’s looking daily at a combination of 12 metrics and warned that if the state doesn’t proceed cautiously “you can make huge mistakes.”

“We know this is frustrating to people,” Inslee said. “This is extremely challenging, there’s no question about that.”

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."