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Dispute Over Siting of Coronavirus Quarantine Facility in Washington State

The Seattle area is ground zero for the coronavirus in the U.S., where 10 of the 11 deaths as of March 5 have occurred. King County's decision to purchase a motel in Kent for use as a quarantine facility is being met with protests by city officials.
March 8, 2020, 9am PDT | Irvin Dawid
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"Joined by city council members and the police chief, Kent Mayor Dana Ralph protested a King County plan to buy a motel along a key downtown corridor to be used as an emergency public health quarantine facility for coronavirus patients, contending city officials weren’t informed or consulted about the decision that could put their community at risk," report Lewis Kamb and Ryan Blethen for The Seattle Times. Kent, a majority-minority city of almost 130,000 people, is the sixth-largest in the state.

“We are very concerned about the public health and safety implications this has for our community,” Ralph said Wednesday. “They are replicating and bringing a situation similar in scale to the Life Care Center of Kirkland and dropping it off in Kent.” 

The Kirkland nursing facility is linked to eight of the nine deaths in the county. Another death occurred in adjacent Snohomish County, and one in California, as of March 5.

The protest is reminiscent of events in Southern California when the federal and state governments sought to use a state facility in Costa Mesa as a quarantine center for coronavirus patients from the Diamond Princess cruise ship that were to be released from a Bay Area military facility. The city successfully filed a temporary restraining order, and the federal government dropped the plan.

Unlike Costa Mesa, the Times reports that "[t]he city doesn’t appear to have any legal recourse, but it’s asking the county to sell the building after the virus scare ends, Ralph said."

Why Kent?

"Mayor Ralph and other officials said the county appeared to intentionally choose a site in an area that is more diverse and not as affluent as the Eastside or Seattle," add Kamb and Blethen. "We firmly believe this is an equity issue,” Ralph said.

A spokesperson for King County Executive Dow Constantine explained that the 85-room, 2.4-acre EconoLodge on Central Avenue North was selected "because it was the only motel on the market that met public health’s criteria, which includes rooms with separate HVAC units and doors that open to the outside, not to a hallway."

The city-county conflict brings into question how much communication should be done in siting quarantine or isolation facilities, particularly after emergency declarations have been signed.

The location of the motel targeted for coronavirus quarantine had not been previously disclosed until Ralph’s news event at Kent City Hall. At the same time Wednesday, Constantine was addressing the media with the latest update on King County’s coronavirus response. During that briefing, he announced a deal to purchase an unidentified motel in Kent had been finalized.

On Monday, Constantine first announced he’d signed an emergency declaration a day earlier that “enables me to take extraordinary measures, including waiving some procurement protocols.”

Coronavirus and homeless populations

During Monday’s news briefing, Constantine announced the county planned to set up modular housing [see photo] in “multiple sites” for homeless people who become infected with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus now spreading around the world, but he did not immediately disclose the sites.

One of those locations announced the next day drew the opposition of a state legislator.

Tuesday’s announcement about the White Center site quickly drew criticism from state Sen. Joe Nguyen, a Democrat who represents the unincorporated neighborhood southwest of Seattle.

“I understand why this facility is needed,” Nguyen said in a statement. “But the appearance of placing it in a neighborhood that has already been historically marginalized conveys a message about whose safety we most value in our society that is not lost on me.”

Constantine said Wednesday that the site was chosen “because we own the land and it has access to utilities.”

In turn, Nguyen informed his constituents on March 4 of the need for the facility:

It is important during this time of uncertainty, however, to understand that a quarantine facility will not necessarily mean the surrounding area is more prone to infections. These sites are a vital part of the statewide response to the virus, and provide an opportunity for those who have become sick to recover without posing a risk to their surrounding population.

Coronavirus update from CDC:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention webpage, "Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) in the U.S.," updated March 5, 2020, shows:

  • Total cases: 99
  • Total deaths: 10
  • States reporting cases: 13

Related in Planetizen:

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Published on Wednesday, March 4, 2020 in The Seattle Times
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