The states coronovirus captain.
The state's coronovirus captain. Screenshot from TVW

In a hearing with the Senate Ways and Means committee, Washington Department of Health (DOH) Secretary John Wiesman asked lawmakers for $100 million to combat the local outbreak of COVID-19, the novel coronavirus spreading across King and Snohomish counties.

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As of yesterday, Wiesman said, there have been 14 cases in King County, including 2 deaths, and three cases in Snohomish. (Total number of deaths is now six, according to King County.) “I expect we’ll have more numbers in the days ahead," he added, noting that the risk of spread is increasing due to "non-travel community spread."

So far the DOH has spent $2.3 million responding over the course of 40 days. Wiesman said the agency has 100 to 150 people working on the issue, not including colleagues at other agencies.

Jamie Bodden, managing director at Washington State Association of Local Public Health Officials, expects costs to increase as activities to combat the virus ramp up. "King County was burning $200,000 a week on response activity," she said. Officials now expect King County to need $6 million, while Snohomish County is expecting $700,000 in costs.

Wiesman also said, however, that the estimated cost to the public health system right now is $3.5 million, but he stressed that future costs are difficult to predict as the length of the outbreak is unknown. The ultimate goal, he said, was "to spread this out as long as we can, in the sense of trying to slow this down” so they don't overload the health care system.

Senate budget writers had already allocated $10 million for the novel coronovirus response, in addition to $30 million already pegged for DOH, but that allocation was made before the virus started spreading in Kirkland. State lawmakers are also looking forward to resources coming from Congress.

Wiesman said DOH now has the COVID-19 test at their lab and has the capacity to test 100 patients per day.

The agency is now in "Phase II" of its work, which Wiesman described as "readying key sectors" such as schools, hospitals, businesses and the general public for possible major changes ahead. He reiterated calls for people to stay home if they're feeling sick, and to wash their hands frequently for at least 20 seconds. "You know folks, this time, we really mean it. Sing the happy birthday song twice," he said.

Wiesman also stanched racist misinformation and rumors about Asians and Asian businesses being likely vectors for the disease, and called for community members to "visit Asian business who are being unfairly targeted to show support for the community...if guidelines are being misimplemented."

"Viruses have no idea of what race or ethnicity you are...It has nothing to do with the transmission...This virus is not about one particular community," he said.

As for large public gatherings, right now DOH is "encouraging" elderly people and people with underlying chronic health issues (i.e cardiovascular disease, lung respiratory illnesses, cancer) to "think about limiting their activity in large crowds."

People who are ill should also avoid visiting friends and loved ones in nursing homes and long term care facilities.

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If you're experiencing symptoms related to the virus, Wiesman urges you to call your health care provider.

Though the fatality rate of COVID-19 is technically unknown at the moment, Wiesman said researchers expect case fatality rates of 1%, which he described as “large.”

“Right now is the time to get prepared," he said.