March 11, 2020 / 5:34 PM / a month ago

Washington state bans gatherings, may close schools to fight COVID-19

SEATTLE (Reuters) - Washington Governor Jay Inslee on Wednesday banned gatherings of over 250 people in the Seattle area, said he may soon close all schools and did not rule out eventual lockdowns to slow the spread of the United States’ deadliest coronavirus outbreak.

Washington State Governor Jay Inslee and other regional leaders attend a news conference to announce measures to combat the spread of novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19, in Seattle, Washington, U.S., March 11, 2020. REUTERS/Karen Ducey

The ban targeted sports, concerts, worship services and other events in greater Seattle’s King, Snohomish and Pierce Counties. Seattle Public Schools later announced they would close for at least two weeks starting Thursday to “disrupt widespread infection.”

“We’re going to fight this epidemic as much as we can and the reason is we don’t want to see an avalanche of people coming into our hospitals with limited capacity,” Inslee told a press conference, adding that the health system may need to provide critical care for thousands of coronavirus patients in the months ahead.

The moves represented the most aggressive “social-distancing” actions to date by any U.S. state. They came as Washington reported 366 coronavirus cases, more than a quarter of the national total, and 29 deaths of the 32 recorded across the country.

Asked whether he would consider lockdowns like those seen in China and Italy, Inslee said he was trying everything he could to avoid them but did not rule them out.

“Can you eliminate these things from possibility? Of course not, you can’t,” Inslee said.

‘EQUIVALENT OF A MAJOR EARTHQUAKE’

The Democratic governor, who has clashed with President Donald Trump over his coronavirus response, said he asked all school districts in the state to make contingency plans for possible closures within the next several days.

The move followed New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s decision on Tuesday to close schools, houses of worship and large gatherings in part of New York City suburb New Rochelle to counter an outbreak.

The Washington ban on gatherings, such as the opening game of the Seattle Mariners, is set to last through March and was likely to be extended, Inslee said, adding that the state had “legal means” to enforce the restrictions.

“Temporarily banning social and recreational gatherings will help ensure a health crisis does not become a humanitarian disaster,” said King County Executive Dow Constantine.

Schools should be prepared to close for weeks or months, said Jeffrey Duchin, health officer for Seattle and King County.

“We expect a large scale outbreak in weeks,” said Duchin, adding that it would be “the infectious disease equivalent of a major earthquake.”

Reporting by Deborah Bloom in Seattle; additional reporting and writing by Andrew Hay in New Mexico; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Marguerita Choy

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