Now is not the time to relax in combatting the spread of COVID-19, local health officials and a former governor stressed during a panel discussion yesterday (Nov. 17).

The Tuesday conversation was part of this year’s Bellevue Chamber’s Economic Forecast Summit, which was held virtually. The event attracted 600-plus registrants and included additional panels on health care, tech and gaming, the job market, and emerging industries, plus a keynote from Bank of America’s chief market strategist.

Kicking off the summit, former governor Christine Gregoire offered five suggestions for bending the COVID curve and setting a national example.

Among Gregoire’s suggestions: communication.

People should know, for example, what’s happening with hospitals and their capacity issues to help better inform personal decision-making, Gregoire said. She added that businesses should champion safety messages among employees.

“I ask you and all of your employees to communicate as best you can the importance of it and to communicate one more thing — we’ve treated vaccine like it’s some political football, which it’s not: it is absolutely desperately needed,” said Gregoire, now president and CEO of Challenge Seattle. “So please educate our own employees that vaccines are a real stop to the virus, and we need to take it seriously, and be aware there are good vaccinations in the pipeline, there are good treatments that should be here by the end of the year, that availability for vaccination should be in the spring.”

Christine Gregoire.

Gregoire also called for more testing and contact tracing, and for reopening schools, even in a hybrid format, to prevent further loss of learning. She emphasized the impact remote learning is having on K-5 students and among students of color, those who are low-income, lack connectivity, or have special needs.

Ideally, schools could reopen in January after the virus hopefully subsides. Businesses can volunteer after-school expertise to help with the transition for schools lacking resources, she said.

Gregoire also called for financial support for low-income households whose breadwinners can’t work from home and might continue working if showing virus symptoms because of financial insecurity. Such behavior may be behind rising infection rates in south King County, she said.

“If that’s the case, we need to find a way to support these individuals,” to get tested when they have symptoms, and provide them the financial help to stay home if they are sick, Gregoire said. “We need to advocate that the state needs to do something immediately,” and to advocate that Congress provide something like a targeted CARES Act for that purpose.

Gregoire also called for the support of businesses, notably bars and restaurants affected by the latest Washington restrictions.

“I am delighted that the governor set aside $50 million to be able to provide that support and to do so immediately; we’ll probably need more, but we again need to advocate at the congressional level,” she said. “We need help and that kind of targeted approach is what we need out of another CARES Act.”

Mike Marsh, president and CEO of Bellevue-based Overlake Medical Center, spoke during a breakout session on health care.

Mike Marsh, president and CEO, Overlake Medical Center.

“We’ve got promising news for a vaccine, but now is not the time to let our foot off the gas — we have to double down on our vigilance,” Marsh said. “This is the time to really, really pay attention to what you’ve heard from your public health experts: to mask, to socially distance, to wash your hands, and to be especially careful during the holiday season for indoor gatherings, and pay attention to the guidelines that are out there.”

He said COVID hospitalizations at Overlake have doubled over the last few weeks. Positivity rates in Overlake’s testing centers increased from about 3 percent over the summer and early fall to more than 20 percent now. Fortunately, disease severity is lower than last spring, therapeutics are better, and people are surviving the disease, “but it is devastating to have COVID and to be hospitalized,” Marsh said.

Marsh moderated the panel that included Patty Hayes, director of King County Public Health; Cassie Sauer, CEO of the Washington State Hospital Association; and David LaMarche, chief administrative officer of the Eastside Health Network.

Sauer said health data over the next week or two will influence state policy decisions going forward.

Patty Hayes, director of King County Public Health.

Hayes called for doubling down to protect the health care system from getting overloaded. She urged people to continue practicing safety precautions and being emissaries for doing the right thing.

“I need as many champions as possible,” Hayes said. “I need folks outside of government to really carry the message that this is real, people are having long-term effects from this virus, and we need to care for ourselves and our community.”

Overlake’s Marsh, acknowledging the economic pain myriad businesses are experiencing, said health care hasn’t escaped unscathed. Overlake has experienced more than $60 million in business disruption and unfunded mandates during the pandemic, only about a third of which was covered by the federal stimulus, he said.

He also sees fragility in some staffing, particularly related to the national shortage of specialty nurses, such as for ICU.

Sauer said Washington hospitals have committed to help each other so no hospital is overwhelmed, and that they would transfer patients, knowledge, ventilators, drugs, staff, supplies, and more to ensure quality care for all patients.

Hayes cautioned that when vaccines are approved and shipped, the first batch will be small.

“It’s not like we’re going to have the capacity to vaccinate everybody at the very beginning,” she said, adding the state’s working on a prioritization plan and other logistics. First responders and health care workers will get the first doses, followed by people with preexisting conditions and those over 65, followed by the general population.

Sauer worries about people being hesitant to get the vaccine, and suggested Gregoire could be the kind of person to encourage vaccination.

“I think we need to think about who are our messengers who are really known to our communities and well-respected, and she may be one of them who are out talking about the importance of getting the vaccine,” Sauer said. “I think this is about to be a breakthrough … and we need to be sure people are on board with it.”