LONG BEACH — Long Beach City Hall was closed to the public Wednesday, July 22, after Mayor Jerry Phillips tested positive for covid-19.
Long Beach City Administrator David Glasson said the city was acting with an "abundance of caution" when it locked up the city offices on Bolstad Avenue. The closure is to ensure the building is clear of active virus particles before staff return, Glasson said.
In a news conference Thursday, July 23, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said this was the first Washington mayor he'd heard of contracting the disease. He wished Phillips well.
Phillips plays a leading role in the local response to the covid-19 pandemic as a member of the Pacific County Emergency Management Agency Council, which comprises the county's four elected mayors, three county commissioners and sheriff.
As part of his response to the pandemic, Phillips sought out a sewer testing pilot program with Biobot Analytics, Inc. The Massachusetts-based company wants to map the spread of covid-19 by testing city sewers because the virus that causes the disease, SARS-CoV-2, can be found in stool samples.
Phillips' test results came back Sunday, July 19, the same day a sample of Long Beach's sewers showed virus concentration levels four times higher than a previous sample taken July 5. Based on the concentration levels of the virus in Long Beach's sewer system, Biobot's estimate of active cases in the city rose to 85 from 30, almost three times as many as the previous estimate.
City hall will reopen in some form on Monday, July 27. But for the time being, some staff, including Glasson, are in quarantine while awaiting the results of covid-19 testing. A rapid result test showed Glasson was negative for the disease, but he is still awaiting confirmation from a lab test.
All employees are being encouraged to get tested for the virus if they are concerned they may have been exposed, Glasson said. Someone can be exposed to the virus if they are within 6 feet of an infected person for more than 15 minutes, according to health officials.
Phillips was tested July 16 after one of his close contacts began showing symptoms of the disease and began isolating. Once Phillips believed he was exposed to the virus, he did not return to city hall, Glasson said.
Based on the Pacific County Health Department's exposure criteria of being within 6 feet for 15 minutes, health officials warned Glasson that he might have been exposed. Glasson did not return to city hall Monday, July 20.
By Wednesday, the city became aware of more symptoms being reported within the office. That was what led to the decision to close the building, Glasson said, although additional test results remain pending.
Phillips said in a July 23 phone interview that he did not wish to go into detail about his symptoms, and said he is still able to do city business. His isolation is expected to end July 30. Phillips is still attending video meetings.
"We can do a lot of stuff remotely now," Glasson said. "That isn't as big a deal as it used to be three or four months ago."
Cases concentrated in south county
Out of the 26 cases connected to Pacific County, 22 involved people living in the county at the time of their diagnosis. Of those 22 cases, 15 involved people living in South Pacific County, while seven involved people living in North Pacific County.
The test of the Long Beach city's sewer system on Sunday, July 19, showed cases are on the rise in the city.
"The fact of the matter is, cases are going up," Glasson said. He encouraged everyone to wear their masks and wash their hands often.
The testing company, Biobot Analytics, said it is a national leader when it comes to wastewater epidemiology — tracking diseases by analyzing sewer systems. It began its covid-19 mapping project after scientists detected SARS-CoV-2 in stool samples.
On April 7, the company published in medRxiv the findings of its first effort to estimate the number of people infected with covid-19 based on the levels of SARS-CoV-2 in sewage. The company collected samples from a “large metropolitan area” in Massachusetts, according to a study summary published on the company’s Medium page. On March 25, that sample area had about 446 confirmed cases of covid-19. Biobot’s sewage analysis showed an estimated 115,000 people infected in the same area.
The mapping program was created in collaboration with researchers at MIT, Harvard, and Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
The Biobot test samples only a fraction of local sewage. In south Pacific County, only Long Beach, Ilwaco and Seaview are served by wastewater treatment facilities. The majority of homes and businesses are on septic tanks.
As of Wednesday, July 22, Pacific County health officials said the department was monitoring eight active cases in the county.