“We could be vaccinating 10 times the people we are now in Spokane…”

Spokane Regional Health director talks with the GA Committee for SAR

Dr. Francisco R. Velázquez admits he is an eternal optimist.

He took the position of interim health officer for the Spokane Regional Health Board in the midst of a pandemic. His approach was simple. Divide the problem into pieces and find local expertise to come up with workable solutions. The initial task was daunting. During the holiday season, the number of Covid cases began to skyrocket here. “We needed to preserve our capacity to provide care,” said Dr. Velázquez. “But just as important, we needed better data on where exposures were happening.”

This meant making tough choices. Traditional PCR tests gave patients results back in one to three days. At the same time, Rapid PCR tests became available that could give results almost immediately. More expensive, but it allowed for faster responses to know where the virus was going.

“We needed this tool to isolate the virus more quickly, to better protect those who might be in contact with the infected patient,” said Velázquez.

Just as important, Dr. Velázquez set up 8 separate task forces to better understand and treat at-risk populations, such as school children, the homeless, prisoners, and those in long term care facilities. The work these teams has done led to a new plan that allowed students back into school.

“We developed what became a model for the state,” said Velázquez.

Spokane’s Covid numbers have been reduced by 60% in recent weeks, leading to Eastern Washington being allowed to move into Phase 2. For REALTORS® that has meant being able to hold open houses again. To date, the state has not yet developed criteria for Phase 3.

What makes Spokane unique is our capacity for medicine. Because Spokane is the center for medicine for much of the region, we have toughly 2 ½ times the medical capacity as other cities our size. As such, Dr. Velázquez believes we have the resources to mobilize quickly to begin vaccinating ten times what is currently being done.

“It all comes down to vaccine supplies,” said Velázquez. “We are only receiving 30-40% of the doses we request on a daily basis.” Adding that he has been working with the Governor’s office to find ways to expand the supply to Spokane.

While Spokane appears to be moving in the right direction, Velázquez fears there could be new challenges in the months ahead. Already there have been 11 new variants of Covid-19 identified, with three of them appearing to be more virulent, and up to 50% more transmissible. He expects to see these stronger variants appearing here as early as March or April.

But ever the optimist, Velázquez is heartened by news that 4 new vaccines are in the final stages of testing and development, such as the Johnson and Johnson vaccine effective with just one dose. While he continues to stress the current strategies such as social distancing, wearing masks, monitoring and vaccinations, he is also planning for better times ahead. Among his newly formed task forces is one aimed at reopening large events and venues.

“We must renew our vigilance in the months ahead, but I am hopeful we will continue to move in the right direction,” said Velázquez.