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Vice President Mike Pence gives an elbow bump to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee during a news briefing about the coronavirus outbreak. (Global News via YouTube)

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and other state officials say they’re acting to reduce medical costs for people who have to be tested or treated for the COVID-19 coronavirus.

The state will cover the costs of testing for state residents who don’t have health insurance, Inslee said today at a news briefing in Olympia.

“For the uninsured in our state, whose doctors believe they need testing, I am announcing that we have the authority and intention to cover those costs by the state of Washington,” Inslee said.

The University of Washington’s virology lab is ramping up the Seattle area’s capacity for testing people who may have been infected with the COV-19 coronavirus, but the tests have to be ordered by health professionals.

Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler, meanwhile, issued an emergency order to Washington state health insurers, requiring them to waive copays and deductibles for any consumer requiring coronavirus testing.

Insurers will also be required to allow a one-time early refill for prescription drugs, and suspend any prior authorization requirement for treatment or testing relating to COVID-19. If an insurer doesn’t have enough medical providers in its network to provide those services, it must allow enrollees to be treated by another provider within a reasonable distance at no cost.

The order, issued under Washington’s state of emergency, is effective until May 4.

During today’s briefing, Inslee didn’t lay out a detailed plan for covering coronavirus tests for the uninsured. He did, however, point out that budget officials could tap a $100 million emergency fund as soon as he signs a bill that’s been making its way through the Legislature this week. (Another $25 million in federal emergency funds could be on the way as well.)

The Department of Labor and Industries is changing its policy on workers’ compensation, to provide benefits to health care workers and first responders who are forced into quarantine because they’ve been exposed to COVID-19 on the job.

“These health care workers and first responders are protecting our communities,” Inslee said. “They need to know that we have their backs. This is the right thing to do.”

Workers’ compensation coverage can include medical testing, cover treatment expenses if a worker becomes ill or injured, and provide time-loss payments for those who cannot work if they are sick or quarantined.

More than two dozen first responders in Kirkland, Wash., the locale for a long-term care facility that’s been the prime hot spot for the outbreak, were ordered into quarantine or isolation due to concerns about exposure to the virus.

Today officials reported a significant increase in the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases. “This is a critical moment in the growing outbreak of COVID-19 in King County,” King County Public Health said in its daily update.

Fifty-one cases have been documented in King County, up from 31 the day before. The number of King County fatalities rose from 10 to 11, due to the death of an elderly woman at a Kirkland hospital.

Eighteen more cases, including one death, have been reported in neighboring Snohomish County. One case has been confirmed in Grant County on the eastern side of the state.

Based on a genetic analysis of the virus’ evolution over time, experts say it’s possible that hundreds if not thousands of people in the Seattle area have contracted COVID-19 since the first case was reported in mid-January. But because the symptoms are mild for most people, many of those who were infected may not have known they were carrying the virus, researchers said.

Those with underlying health problems, particularly if they’re older than 60, are considered at higher risk.

Because there’s no vaccine or antiviral treatment available for COVID-19, the best available strategies for containing the outbreak include rigorous hygiene practices and “social distancing.”

Inslee said non-essential gatherings of more than 10 people should be postponed, canceled or converted into virtual meetings. “This is not an order, but it is encouragement for people to think about our responsibilities to the community,” the governor said.

Later in the day, Inslee and other state and local officials met with Vice President Mike Pence, who’s heading up the federal response to the outbreak.

Pence flew aboard Air Force Two into Joint Base Lewis-McChord, near Tacoma, to get an on-the-ground assessment of the coronavirus situation. When the vice president emerged from the plane, he and Inslee exchanged a virus-safe elbow bump rather than a handshake.

The two men repeated the gesture this evening, at a news briefing during which they downplayed any political differences they might have had.

“I think we have a good partnership between the state of Washington and the federal government,” Inslee said. Pence returned the compliment, hailing the “seamless partnership that was forged from the very beginning.”

One reporter asked about a tart tweet that Inslee sent out last week, in which he said he told Pence that “our work would be more successful if the Trump administration stuck to the science and told the truth.”

Inslee said neither the tweet nor the underlying issue came up during today’s talks with Pence. “I think everybody agrees here that we want the best science. … We’re getting good information from the agencies of the federal government, and I appreciate that,” the Democratic governor and erstwhile presidential candidate said.

Pence said Air Force Two delivered 100,000 air-filtering N95 respirators, 100,000 surgical masks and 2.500 face shields to Washington.

On the issue of making more coronavirus tests available, the vice president acknowledged that “we still have a ways to go,” but promised that enough kits to test more than a million patients would be distributed nationwide over the next week.

Pence said the top priority will be to get test kits to the two states where coronavirus patients have died — Washington state and California. “Our message to families all across the state of Washington is simply this: We’re with you, we are here to help, and we’re going to stay with you every step of the way,” he said.

This report was first published at 2:36 p.m. PT March 5 and was updated with information about Vice President Mike Pence’s visit.

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