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Inslee orders all greater Seattle area schools to close

March 13, 2020 GMT
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Washington Gov. Jay Inslee talks to the media about the decision to close schools in three counties in response to COVID-19, on Thursday, March 12, 2020, in Olympia, Wash. All public and private K-12 schools in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties will be closed for six weeks, and Inslee said there could be closures in more counties soon. (AP Photo/Rachel La Corte)
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Washington Gov. Jay Inslee talks to the media about the decision to close schools in three counties in response to COVID-19, on Thursday, March 12, 2020, in Olympia, Wash. All public and private K-12 schools in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties will be closed for six weeks, and Inslee said there could be closures in more counties soon. (AP Photo/Rachel La Corte)

OLYMPIA (AP) — As the death toll from the new coronavirus reached at least 31 in Washington state, Gov. Jay Inslee on Thursday ordered that all public and private K-12 schools in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties be closed for six weeks.

Inslee’s directive affects about 600,000 students. The schools must close by March 17 and remain shuttered through April 24.

“We have reached a tipping point where the spread of this virus demands that we take action,” Inslee said at a news conference. “We do not expect this to slow down and it will not slow down unless we take action. Closing schools will slow the transmission of this virus.”

King County announced Thursday that it has confirmed 36 new cases, bringing the region’s total to 270. Snohomish County also reported an increase from about 75 to 108 since Wednesday. The statewide total topped more than 450 by Thursday evening.

One in every six teachers across the state are over the age 60, which makes them more vulnerable to the worst effects of COVID-19, said Chris Reykdal, superintendent of public instruction.

“We have to create social distancing in unprecedented way,” Reykdal said. “That’s why we’re taking such significant steps to protect students.”

Several school districts in the Seattle already announced they will close due to the outbreak. Seattle Public Schools with 53,000 students, closed beginning Thursday. Lake Washington School District, which includes Kirkland, the epicenter of the outbreak in Washington state, announced Wednesday that schools will close beginning Thursday. Bellevue Schools is doing the same, beginning Friday.

King County reported its 27th death from COVID-19 on Thursday. Snohomish county has three deaths and Grant County one.

The closures are limited to the three counties, but schools across the state should have plans for future closures, which Inslee said might come soon. The top priority is reducing the number of cases and deaths, he said.

On Thursday evening, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said the Seattle Public Library will close its locations. Seattle Parks and Recreation will cancel programming, rentals and events, and close all community centers, pools, environmental learning centers, and all other recreation facilities to the public, except for preschool programs and hygiene services, Durkan said. The closures start at 6 p.m. Friday and will last until at least April 13.

Officials with the city’s iconic Space Needle said on Twitter Thursday night that they will suspend operations starting Friday through March 31 for precautionary reasons related to the pandemic.

The state Department of Corrections said it would suspend visitation, tours and events at all prisons and other correctional facilities starting Friday.

For most people, the coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover within a few weeks.

At least 10 long-term care facilities in the Seattle area have reported positive cases.

Inslee earlier banned gatherings and events of more than 250 people in three Western Washington counties covering hundreds of miles and millions of people. Oregon banned gatherings of more than 250 people statewide. Inslee’s proclamation applies to King, Snohomish and Pierce counties, which include the cities of Seattle, Tacoma and Everett, home to almost four million people. The order does not include schools or workplaces. On Thursday Thurston County issued a similar directive and Clark County made that recommendation.

Twenty-two of the deaths are linked to one suburban Seattle nursing home and authorities in King County said the virus has spread to at least 10 long-term care facilities.

The Washington State Department of Health said a worker at its Tumwater campus has tested positive and health officials are contacting people who interacted with the worker. The University of Washington also confirmed Thursday that a student who lives in a dorm tested positive and is recovering at home out of state, The Seattle Times reported. Those who have been in close contact with the student are self-isolating, officials said.

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AP writer Lisa Baumann contributed from Seattle.