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Washington Gov. Jay Inslee On His State's Prognosis


The first case of COVID-19 in the U.S. was identified January 20 in Washington state. Many people expected Seattle to become the epicenter of the outbreak in this country. Instead, nearly three months later, there are signs that the state has hit its peak number of cases. And the death rate puts the state ninth in the country.


Tonight, President Trump released guidelines for a three-phased reopening of the country. Before doing so, Trump had a call with governors around the country, like Washington state's Jay Inslee. Earlier, before the guidelines were released publicly, we spoke with the Democratic governor.


JAY INSLEE: You bet. Thanks for having me. It's an honor.

SHAPIRO: What's the most important thing you learned on that call today?

INSLEE: Well, that he will abide by the U.S. Constitution and have the governors of the states make the decisions as appropriate for their own states. He recognized the capability of governors to do so, and I think the most salient thing is that these decisions would remain in the purview of the states' governors.

And that's the way the Constitution called for that decision to be made. I knew he had taken a different position a few days ago. But in talks with, oh, I don't know, 45 of the governors, he made it clear that these will be our decisions based on the circumstances and the principles that we adopt in our own states.

SHAPIRO: So let's talk about how you're going to approach that decision. You've just extended the stay-at-home order to early May, a few weeks from now. In another part of the program, I speak with a Seattle ER doctor, Sachita Shah. And when I asked her whether she thinks your state is ready to reopen, this is what she said.


SACHITA SHAH: I would really hope they go easy on us. We're just getting a handle on being able to take care of the numbers and the types of patients that are coming in.

SHAPIRO: What would you say to Dr. Shah?

INSLEE: I would say first off, she and her colleagues are heroes, the work they've been doing. And we're going to be having them in our minds and hearts before we make any decisions about this. Look; there clearly are two conditions that have to exist before we can substantially reopen our economy. No. 1, we have to drive down the number of infections so they're as close to zero as possible so that we're very confident that there will not be a resurgence that could overwhelm our hospitals. And so we are not in that position. We aren't even sure we're at the peak yet. We have not really experienced a downward curve in the numbers yet. So we are quite a distance away from that condition being met.

The second condition is we have to have a comprehensive and robust testing and contact-tracing system with what I liken to a fire brigade. You know, when your house is on fire, you call the fire department. They come very quickly, and they deal with it. We need the same type of fire brigade for COVID-19 when we have people with symptoms. And we have to build that. We have to staff it with hundreds of people we now are hiring. And we have to have the testing capability to actually do that. And that testing capability does not exist anywhere in the United States right now. We have to have a huge mobilization of our industry to provide the test kits that we need.

So the doctor can rest easy. We are going to make sure both those conditions exist before we can really start the upward swing.

SHAPIRO: This is not unique to Washington state, but the things you're mentioning seem like things that should have been built over the last three months since this disease was detected in the United States. How is it possible that these things still are not stood up?

INSLEE: Well, weeks ago, I spoke to the president and urged him to invoke the Defense Production Act and mobilize the incredible supply chains that the Department of Defense has and to ask them to convert some of their production from other hardware and software to swabs and contact vials and machines that can do analysis. And he did not agree with that assessment, and we lost weeks, frankly. Now - and I talked to him again today about this subject, and now they are beginning to think in these terms. But we could use a lot more vigorous leadership from the White House on this.

SHAPIRO: But beyond the manufacturing, you're talking about a response team, hiring people who can go out and address hotspots when they pop up.


SHAPIRO: I mean, that's something Washington state can and likely will stand up on its own, right?

INSLEE: Yes, and we are doing that. We've already identified 550 people who are in-state employment in other agencies who can be detailed to this particular responsibility. So we already have a good handle on that. I'm confident we will be able to have the people that are necessary and some of the technology that will respect privacy rights to get that part of the job done.

I am more concerned about the availability of the testing apparatus because we need five, 10 times more testing capability than we have today in the nation and in my state. And the reason for that is heretofore, we wanted testing capability to test, you know, symptomatic individuals, those who were present at the hospital. But now we need testing for the much broader scale of Americans - people who are coming back to work in a food processing plant, people who are coming back to work in our manufacturing plants. We need these folks to be able to have testing immediately on the slightest symptoms.

And that is a huge increase in the testing capability. And I know that the White House is hearing this from multiple governors. I'm not the only state that is in this position. And this is a, frankly, kind of still a dire situation. We have 160 nursing homes with COVID in it, and we need to test people.

SHAPIRO: It's interesting to me that you use the phrase reopen the economy because there is so much economic pressure right now on governors to get people back to work. How much pressure do you feel looking at the economy and the unemployment numbers in Washington state right now?

INSLEE: Well, it's a duality because we know the economic losses. You know, the people who are unemployed are skyrocketing. Our unemployment claims have gone up seven times higher than at the worst week of the last Great Recession. So this is an unprecedented event. And people who are worrying where their rent checks are going to - or rent payment is going to come from, it's very dire. But I will tell you that the most - the greatest pressure from our citizens is to beat this virus. There is unbelievable - high level of consensus in our state that we have to beat this virus because people recognize ultimately, unless we do, that will be a permanent drain on our economy.

So even with all the anxiety, even with the lost wages, even with concerns people have, they are remarkably committed to get this job done, both Republicans and Democrats. We've had a very bipartisan approach to this in our state. And I do think it's the right decision based on science and health, and that's what we've got to listen to.

SHAPIRO: Governor, just in our last minute, Seattle did not follow the path of New York. Your state has done better than people expected it would a couple of months ago. What do you attribute that to?

INSLEE: Well, you know, that will be analyzed for years to come. From right now, it looks like some of the things we've done from a social distancing standpoint have been beneficial. We have had a wide variety of leaders who led early on this, including business leaders, labor leaders. We recognize science here in the state of Washington. So we made some early decisions on an early emergency declaration. We acted promptly to ban large gatherings, then closed schools, then businesses. And we did it in a way that had very broad public acceptance because of the sequence that we used. And we have a group of people here who understand science and follow it. And as a result of that, we've had a huge team of 7 million Washingtons that are all pulling on the rope. And so credit this to Washingtonians to really caring about their loved ones by doing the right thing.

SHAPIRO: Jay Inslee is the governor of Washington state. Thank you for speaking with us today.

INSLEE: Thank you. You bet. Take care.

(SOUNDBITE OF A FOREST MIGHTY BLACK'S "REBIRTH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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