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caption: Washington Gov. Jay Inslee speaks at a news conference on Tuesday during which he announced new restrictions on long-term care facilities to address the growing coronavirus epidemic in the state.
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Washington Gov. Jay Inslee speaks at a news conference on Tuesday during which he announced new restrictions on long-term care facilities to address the growing coronavirus epidemic in the state.
Credit: Austin Jenkins / Northwest News Network

Inslee orders nursing homes to limit visitors, signals mandatory social-distancing measures are next

Warning that the number of coronavirus cases in Washington could double weekly, Gov. Jay Inslee on Tuesday indicated that mandatory social-distancing measures could be announced this week and, in the meantime, imposed new restrictions on nursing homes.

"If we're going to stop this epidemic, or seriously slow it down, we need to look at what's coming in Washington state, not just what is here today," Inslee said at a news conference at the state capitol.

Inslee said if the assumption is that 1,000 people in Washington currently have COVID-19, then the projections are as many as 64,000 could be infected in seven or eight weeks from now, unless measures are taken to slow the spread.

"If you do the math, it gets very disturbing," Inslee said.

On Tuesday, Inslee stopped short of issuing mandatory orders to restrict large gatherings and other steps to stem the community-based spread of the disease. But he reiterated that those sorts of measures are being considered and suggested that an announcement is close at hand.

Instead, Inslee expanded his existing state of emergency to impose new restrictions on the state's more than 700 nursing homes and assisted living facilities. So far, local health agencies say at least nine such facilities in Washington have experienced presumptive positive tests for COVID-19, including the Life Care Center of Kirkland where the state's outbreak has been centered. As of Tuesday, 22 deaths had been associated with that facility, according to Public Health -- Seattle & King County.

Under the new orders, long-term care facilities must restrict visitors to one a day per resident. Only adults, no children, can visit and the visits must take place in the resident's room. The restrictions do not apply in end-of-life situations.

Additionally, all staff, volunteers and visitors to nursing homes and assisted living facilities will have to be screened for coronavirus before entering. They'll also have to show identification and provide their name and contact information on a visitor's log.

The governor's order also temporarily suspends some nursing home resident rights that might "prevent, hinder, or delay" the response to COVID-19, including the requirement that residents have the right to participate in group activities within a facility.

"We are doing this to protect our patients, obviously, their families and people who care for them," Inslee said.

In the event that a facility has a COVID-19 case, Inslee said the state will now contract with a case management entity to provide "real-time information" to family members -- something that didn't happen in the case of Life Care of Kirkland. The Washington Department of Social and Health Services also plans to create a web page that will provide up-to-date information on facilities where cases have been identified.

"I believe this is going to substantially avoid the situation we had in Kirkland with many families having such high anxiety about their loved ones," Inslee said.

Additionally Tuesday, Inslee and Employment Security Commissioner Suzi LeVine announced a series of measures to help individuals who lose their jobs or are required to quarantine due to coronavirus.

While emphasizing that employer-based benefits are the first line of defense, including the state's mandatory paid sick leave program, Inslee said the state can act as a "backstop" for workers who don't have access to paid leave programs through their employer.

The new emergency rules are designed to make unemployment insurance benefits available for people who become mildly ill with COVID-19, those who are exposed to the disease and must self-quarantine or those who are immune-compromised and must isolate themselves.

"We don't want there to be any disincentive to stay home if they need to," LeVine said of employees.

In the event a worker falls seriously ill and has to quit their job, they could be eligible for the state's new paid family and medical leave program, although because of high demand there is currently a several week waiting period to obtain benefits.

In addition, all state employees who are impacted by the coronavirus outbreak will be granted additional leave and telework options, the governor said.

Inslee praised Washington residents for taking steps to reduce the spread of the disease by tele-commuting, avoiding large gatherings and taking other precautions. He called that the "single most powerful weapon we have against this epidemic."

Asked what the state of Washington needs to combat coronavirus, Inslee said "surge capacity" for the medical system, which could be overwhelmed if the number of cases rises dramatically. He said the state is working to identify additional health care workers and equipment -- including ventilators -- that could be deployed in a worst-case scenario.