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'Without question, people will die': Spokane doctors condemn decision for fair to continue

The event brings in more than 200,000 to one place. Dr. John McCarthy and Dr. Michael Ryan said this is unacceptable and will lead to cases, outbreaks and deaths.

SPOKANE, Wash. — As hospitals are caring for the most COVID-19 patients they've handled during the entire pandemic, some doctors are questioning why large gatherings like the Spokane Interstate County Fair are taking place. In a passionate 30-minute interview, two Spokane physicians say politics are getting in the way of public health.

Previous attendance records for the Spokane County Fair shows the event brings more than 200 thousand people to one place. 

Dr. John McCarthy and Dr. Michael Ryan said holding the fair is unacceptable and will lead to cases, outbreaks and deaths.

"Without question, people will die because of our choices," McCarthy said. "We, as a society, have decided that we're okay with that."

McCarthy has worked as a physician for more than 25 years. He is currently a physician at the NATIVE Project clinic but also works with medical students at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Eastern Washington. He is a past president of the WA Academy of Family Physicians and, in 2014, was named Spokane County Medical Society’s Physician Citizen of the Year. In 2012, McCarthy was named Washington’s Family Physician of the Year. He got his medical degree from UW.

"I just would hope that people would want to take care of their neighbors," Ryan said. 

Ryan has been practicing for more than 35 years. He specializes in nephrology, kidney health, and internal medicine at Providence Sacred Heart. He was previously the associate dean of UW medical school and only left after moving to Spokane in 2020. He has been named one of “Seattle’s Top Doctors” for several years, received numerous distinguished teaching awards and awarded the UWSOM Alumni Service Award in 2016 for his efforts benefiting the UW School of Medicine community. He got his medical degree from the University of Michigan.

They, along with UW School of Medicine Associate Dean for Eastern Washington, Dr. Darryl Potyk, are speaking out against the decision to host the fair, and they aren't the only healthcare workers doing so. Potyk was unavailable for the interview, but sent his full support.

"It makes zero sense in the middle of the pandemic and we’re hearing reports that we're lucky if a quarter of those people are wearing masks," Providence Chief Medical Officer Dr. Dan Getz said. "And, so what it tells me is the community doesn't understand the level of crisis that we’re dealing with and they don’t understand the incredibly difficult decisions that they’re making and delaying care for people."

KREM 2 reached out to each county commissioner and their offices on why they supported having the fair. Also, the Spokane Regional Health District Interim Health Officer Dr. Frank Velázquez and his office.

Spokane County Commissioner Josh Kerns released a statement about the decision to keep the fair going. 

"Our community has had so many events taken from them over the last eighteen months. The fair staff has worked closely with the Washington State Department of Health and the Spokane Regional Health District to make the Spokane County Interstate Fair as safe as possible. Large events have been happening across the State of Washington including the Washington State Fair, College Football games, and professional sporting events."

Kerns added that they added more safety measures like handwashing stations and room for more social distancing. He also said they are following Gov. Inslee's indoor mask mandate. 

Kerns also said they are looking for help from the community. If they are sick or experiencing any COVID-19 symptoms, they should stay at home. 

County spokesperson Jared Webley also replied, noting the same COVID-19 changes as Kerns. His statement reads, in part:

"In addition, we have been encouraging Fair goers to consider visiting the Fair on the busier weekends, guests are encouraged to consider visiting the Fair on the less busy weekdays. There are 10 days to enjoy the activities at the Fair."

SRHD's spokesperson Kelli Hawkins responded as well. She said, in part:

Every event is unique, so advice changes based on factors such as activities taking place (for attendees, employees and volunteers), how many people are in attendance, where the event is being held, and whether it is indoors or outdoors. However, our main objective was to ensure the events were following the requirements and guidance set by the Governor’s Office and Washington State Department of Health and Labor & Industries. As long as an event followed the requirements and guidance, it is allowed to proceed as planned, add additional measures we have recommended, or make the decision to cancel or postpone.

The doctors said that isn't enough. 

"That's a real tragedy that we are determining health by politicians, rather than physicians," McCarthy said. "I think that's where the accountability comes in, is how we as a society choose to deal with this."

None of the commissioners have medical degrees, something that is reminiscent of another controversial decision many healthcare workers disagreed with.

"We're not dealing with medical decisions we are dealing with political decisions," he said, in response to a question about Dr. Bob Lutz. 

Dr. Lutz is the former health officer for the SRHD. One year ago, he was fired after being an outspoken supporter of masks mandates and shutdowns. Community members criticized the removal of Lutz, citing that the health board is mainly made up of people without medical degrees or people who don't work in the healthcare field.

RELATED: Fact-checking SRHD Board's latest claims about Dr. Bob Lutz's ouster

Velázquez is Lutz's replacement. He stood by the decision to continue on with the fair, and McCarthy said he understands the pressures Velázquez is under. 

"He is in a very difficult position," he said. "Dr. Velázquez has to walk a very delicate line, and at the same time, I think being a health officer is not a popular position. But sometimes you have to say no, this is an unpopular decision and there are repercussions from it."

McCarthy knows this from experience. He is the former health officer of Okanagon County. Healthcare has become politicized, the reason why he left his position, he added.

"I would say I do feel betrayed," he added, noting that Velázquez is a medical professional that chose to support the fair. "This doesn't have to be this way, and the reason it is this way is absolutely confusing to me."

Ryan agreed and said the whole situation is awful and irresponsible. 

"That's devastating, we do our best to keep people healthy, [and] to have people dying of something that probably was preventable," he added.

The doctors add that the science is clear: the vaccines are safe and effective and masks are proven to slow the spread of COVID. 

"How many thousands of people across America are dying that didn't need to, and the families that get demolished and the kids who don't have parents anymore?" Ryan added. "It's just really hard to watch."

"I find that sad that we weren't able to, as a society say 'let's work together and solve this,' McCarthy said. "We decided instead 'I need to maintain every individual right.'

Opponents of the vaccine say getting the shot is a personal choice, but the personal choice profoundly affects others.

"We make all kinds of personal choices that have community effect, and this is a personal choice that has communal effect," McCarthy said. "I can decide to go shoot people, that's a personal choice, but it's not a very good one."

They both added that if someone gets COVID and requires hospitalization and care, that is taking away attention from patients that need procedures like cancer treatment.

Watch below or click here for the RAW interview, which has been slightly edited for clarity: 

On Tuesday, Providence announced they would be pausing all non-emergency surgeries at Sacred Heart Medical Center and Holy Family Hospital due to a surge in COVID-19 cases. The halt in procedures went into effect Wednesday. The paused surgeries include those that can be delayed without harm or risk to a patient. 

Last week during a joint press conference with other regional heath care providers, Providence's Chief Operating Officer Peg Currie said Sacred Heart and Holy Family are caring for their highest number of COVID-19 patients since the pandemic began.  

As of last Friday morning, 150 patients with COVID-19 were hospitalized at the two hospitals. The New York Times reported that 29 of Sacred Heart's inpatients last week were from Idaho

Josh Kerns full statement:

Our community has had so many events taken from them over the last eighteen months. The fair staff has worked closely with the Washington State Department of Health and the Spokane Regional Health District to make the Spokane County Interstate Fair as safe as possible. Large events have been happening across the State of Washington including the Washington State Fair, College Football games, and professional sporting events.

We have implemented safety measures including: additional handwashing and sanitization stations, touchless faucets paid for by a grant from the Washington State Department of Agriculture, additional seating for social distancing when fair goers are eating, and reduced capacity in our grand stands to 50%.

The Governor has implemented a Statewide mask mandate for indoor locations and outdoors when more than five hundred people are present. We are following the Governor’s orders and have signage across the 97 acres of the fairgrounds to remind attendees.

Most importantly, we are asking for the community to help. If anyone is feeling sick or is showing COVID symptoms, we ask that they follow public health guidelines and stay home.

Jared Webley full statement:

In the weeks leading up to the Fair, the Spokane County Interstate Fair and Rodeo staff worked diligently with the Washington State Department of Health and the Spokane Regional Health District to identify and implement COVID-19 guidelines and provide a safe and clean environment for Fair goers this year. The Spokane County Board of Commissioners have remained committed to providing Fair staff with the resources necessary to help in their commitment to maintain a safe and clean environment for our workers, guests, and the community.

As part of this commitment, we have asked guests of the Fair to help in the efforts to hold a successful event this year. Most importantly, for those who do not feel well or have any COVID-19 symptoms, we have been asking those individuals to please refrain from visiting the Fair, stay home or isolated from other members of the public, and follow guidance from the Spokane Regional Health District. 

By state mandate, guests are required to wear masks throughout the Fairgrounds.

In addition, we have been encouraging Fair goers to consider visiting the Fair on the busier weekends, guests are encouraged to consider visiting the Fair on the less busy weekdays. There are 10 days to enjoy the activities at the Fair.

To help accommodate for social distancing guidelines, additional seating areas have been set up and spread out for eating and building layouts for vendors and exhibits have also been reconfigured.

Many improvements have also been made in regard to sanitation at the Fair. Thanks to a $50,000 grant from the Washington Department of Agriculture, touchless water faucets have been installed in all of the conveniently located restrooms throughout the property. In addition, hand sanitizers have also been installed in buildings and throughout the property.

Kelli Hawkins full statement:

The Spokane Regional Health District formed an Events and Venues Workgroup which launched in February 2021. Since then, we have met monthly to discuss how to integrate mitigation measures into event processes and sharing ideas and plans that would allow for events to take place safely. Organizers from all of the county’s major events, including the Spokane County Fair, participated in these meetings.

As time went on, state guidance for event planners has changed and evolved as the spread of COVID-19 has changed. During the workgroup meetings, we were able to discuss those changes and help organizers plan accordingly. In addition, our business technical advisors reviewed operation plans for events, and often met with organizers individually, offering advice on how to make the event safer.

Every event is unique, so advice changes based on factors such as activities taking place (for attendees, employees and volunteers), how many people are in attendance, where the event is being held, and whether it is indoors or outdoors. However, our main objective was to ensure the events were following the requirements and guidance set by the Governor’s Office and Washington State Department of Health and Labor & Industries. As long as an event followed the requirements and guidance, it is allowed to proceed as planned, add additional measures we have recommended, or make the decision to cancel or postpone.

Some additional measures we recommended to all major event organizers included required masking throughout, requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a negative test taken within 72 hours of the event (or promotion of COVID-19 vaccination if a system of checking was not possible), decreasing the number of attendees to allow for greater physical distancing, providing ample hand washing and sanitizing stations, and the implementation of testing protocols and mitigation efforts among staff and volunteers.

These conversations have been consistent among all event organizers.