Okanogan County is eastern Washington’s latest area of concern for COVID-19 cases.
Eight people, at least two of them foreign H-2A farmworkers, have died in the county. That’s considered a lot for the geographically large yet relatively sparsely populated county of about 42,000 people.
Health officials say cases are climbing quickly with nearly 300 confirmed over the last two weeks alone. The county has seen about 800 total cases during the pandemic. Many of the recent cases are in the small town of Brewster, home to a large tree-fruit growing, packing and shipping industry.
In total, Brewster accounts for at least 479 of the county's 782 confirmed cases, according to the most recent public health data. Most recent cases are in people age 20 to 39.
Lauri Jones is director of community health for the Okanogan County health department. She says a combination of people anxious to leave home and eager to start working again caused an explosion of cases.
“We got our Phase 2 on June 6th – I’ll never forget the day. Prior to that, that week Highway 20 opened [from the winter closure of the North Cascades Highway] and it was like the dam had been broken,” Jones said Tuesday during a board of health meeting. “Think about it. From March until June, people were restless and in poor economic disarray, and couldn’t wait.”
Now county health officials are working to track down more than 100 people who attended a recent two-day camping trip in the Methow Valley. Some attendees have since tested positive for COVID-19.
Jones told the health board Tuesday that large gatherings are driving up coronavirus cases and deaths and overburdening the local health care system.
“We don’t have the capacity. Central Washington Hospital (in Wenatchee) can’t take any more,” Jones said. “What does that mean for citizens of our county? We had to send someone to Vancouver! It’s ridiculous!”
Contact tracers are working to track down all attendees of the camping event, but health officials say that’s difficult given its size. Those who attended the July 24-25 gathering on private property north of the town of Methow are asked to contact the Okanogan County health department at 509-422-7140.