By MARTHA BELLISLE and RACHEL LA CORTE
SEATTLE (AP) — As the death toll from COVID-19 in Washington state reached 54, Gov. Jay Inslee signed a measure drawing $200 million from the state’s emergency “rainy day” fund for the state’s coronavirus response this week.
Inslee said the funding bill “is really about protecting what we hold most dear, our lives and the lives of our loved ones.” The measure has $175 million going to the public health system and the remainder to a dedicated unemployment fund for coronavirus impacts. The bill contains an emergency clause and takes effect immediately.
Washington has the highest number of deaths in the U.S., with most being associated with a nursing home in Kirkland. By March 17, the number of positive cases topped 1,000.
Inslee imposed strict new rules this week to help slow the spread of COVID-19. He mandated an immediate two-week closure of all restaurants, bars, and recreational facilities. The governor also revised his ban on events to prohibit gatherings of 50 or more people. Previously the size limit was more than 250.
The new orders went into effect at 12:01 a.m. on March 17 and will be in place through March 31.
“If we are living a normal life, we are not doing our jobs as Washingtonians,” Inslee said.
“We cannot do that anymore. We need to make changes, regardless of size. All of us need to do more. We must limit the number of people we come in contact with. This is the new normal.”
The state Employment Security Department did not immediately have data on the number of unemployment compensation applications since the state was hit by the pandemic, but Inslee said that the state’s $4.7 billion unemployment trust fund was “very, very robust.”
“We feel really good about where we are in unemployment compensation,” he said.
“We’re going to remain committed one way or another to get people unemployment compensation through this crisis. We know how critical this is. We know how many people that are going to experience, we hope, short-term unemployment. We want to be there for them.”
For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover from the new virus.
A clinical trial evaluating a vaccine began on March 16. The National Institutes of Health is funding the trial, which is taking place at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute in Seattle. Public health officials say it will take a year to 18 months to fully validate any potential vaccine.
Inslee said it was possible the Legislature, which just adjourned its 60-day session last week, might have to be called back into a special session if additional money is needed for the crisis.
“We can call a special session at any time that becomes necessary, and I would not be reluctant to do so,” he said. He said he has told legislative leaders to be prepared to do their work even if needs to be done remotely due to social distancing requirements.
At the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, it is not business as usual right now, Port of Seattle officials said. This time last year, 50,000 passengers would be headed through airport security checkpoints at the beginning of spring break travel season, officials said. The airport, which remains open and operating, is currently averaging 16,000 passengers through its checkpoints.
On March 17, Secretary of State Kim Wyman and county election officials called on the governor to cancel a special election set for April 28 across 18 counties. Wyman said in a news release that none of the elections is to elect anyone to office, but are levy and bond elections.
“While public contact in an election is greatly reduced because Washington is a vote-by-mail state, the staffing requirements to conduct an election remain,” Wyman and county officials said in a letter to the governor. “From courthouse closures, to workforce reductions of election staff, postal staff … circumstances outside of our control could make it impossible for counties to meet statutory election requirements. These include mail processing, voter registration, canvassing results, and certifying an election,” the letter said.
Wyman and others to find alternative options, including holding the elections during the August primary or November general.