Category: Health

Omicron Hits Police, Library Workers Hard; Longtime City Union Rep Will Head Labor Relations Office

1. In the past month, the COVID-19 virus tore through the Seattle Police Department, placing dozens of officers in quarantine and adding a new strain to the department’s already-depleted ranks.

On January 12, SPD reported that 124 officers were isolating after testing positive for the virus: more than at any other point during the COVID-19 pandemic, easily surpassing the previous record of 80 officers in quarantine in November 2020. As of last Friday, the number of officers in quarantine had fallen to 85. Nearly 200 SPD employees have tested positive for the virus since the beginning of January, doubling the department’s total number of infections since the start of the pandemic.

The surge of COVID-19 infections, driven by the highly infectious omicron variant, intensifies a staffing shortage at SPD that has whittled away the department’s detective units and left some precincts with only a handful of officers to patrol large areas of the city. With fewer than 1,000 available officers—the lowest number in decades—SPD now routinely relies on non-patrol officers to volunteer for patrol shifts to meet minimum staffing requirements.

Another 170 officers are currently on leave, including more than two dozen unvaccinated officers who are burning through their remaining paid leave before they leave the department. The Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG), which represents the department’s rank-and-file officers and sergeants, has not reached an agreement with the city about the vaccine mandate for city employees, which went into effect on October 18. SPOG is the only city union that has not reached an agreement with the city about the mandate, and its negotiations appear to have stalled.

In contrast, the King County Sheriff’s Office is still working with some unvaccinated officers to find accommodations that will allow them to return to work. Sergeant Tim Meyer, a sheriff’s office spokesman, told PubliCola that his office hasn’t seen enough new COVID-19 cases to pose a challenge for their patrol shifts.

2. The omicron variant is also impacting other city departments where staff interact directly with the public, including the Seattle Public Library, which last week reduced opening hours at branches across the system. For now, many branches will be open only sporadically, starting as late as noon on weekdays, and some will be open just a few partial days each week.

According to SPL spokeswoman Elisa Murray, 63 library staffers, or about 10 percent of the library’s staff, were on a leave of absence (through programs such as the Family and Medical Leave Act) for at least one day during the last two weeks of 2021; in addition, 32 employees were out due to COVID infection or exposure.

Compounding the problem, the library was already short-staffed before omicron hit; compared to 2018, the system had about 8.5 percent fewer staffers overall last year. According to Murray, “With a hiring push in the fall of 2021, we were able to restore pre-pandemic hours at most libraries by Dec. 6, just before the Omicron surge began impacting our staffing numbers once again.”

The library is trying to keep at least two branches in each of its six geographical regions open six or seven days a week so that no one has to travel too far to reach an open branch. Patrons of smaller branches, like Wallingford, Montlake, New Holly, and Northgate may have to travel to other neighborhoods to access services in person.

There is no standard pattern for closures across the city: Some branches are closed on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday, for example, while others are closed on Saturday and Sunday. Murray suggests checking SPL’s website every morning to see which branches are open; the library requires a specific mix of staffers to open a branch, which means that one person calling in sick can be enough to close down a small branch for the day.

3. Shaun Van Eyk, the longtime labor representative for the city of Seattle’s largest union, PROTEC17, will soon be on the other side of the bargaining table as director of Labor Relations for the city’s human resources department. Van Eyk reportedly beat out Adrienne Thompson, former mayor Jenny Durkan’s chief labor advisor, for the position.

As a representative for PROTEC17, Van Eyk advocated for Human Services Department workers facing an uncertain future as the city’s homelessness division dissolved; argued against proposed free-speech restrictions that would limit what city employees could say online; and tangled with city leaders, including those at the Seattle Police Department, over the enforcement of Seattle’s vaccine mandate. (While police officers are represented by the Seattle Police Officers Guild, PROTEC17 represents civilian SPD employees.) In an email to union members announcing Van Eyk’s new position, PROTEC17 director Karen Estevenin credited Van Eyk with negotiating a COVID-era teleworking agreement and a recent wage increase for union members.

The labor relations division has undergone significant churn since the untimely death of its longtime director, David Bracilano, in 2017.

Paul Kiefer, Erica C. Barnett

County’s COVID Response System Was Ill-Prepared for Major Homeless Shelter Outbreak

Image via City of Seattle.

By Erica C. Barnett

On the morning of January 3, hours before an emergency winter weather shelter at Seattle City Hall was scheduled to close, King County Regional Homelessness Authority director Marc Dones and interim Seattle Human Services Department director Tanya Kim showed up to City Hall with an urgent mission: To move as many of the shelter’s COVID-positive guests into private spaces where they could isolate until they were no longer sick.

The task was daunting. King County’s Department of Community and Health Services operates just 179 isolation and quarantine beds, spread between two hotels in Auburn and Kent, and those are reserved for people with the highest risk of complications from COVID.

“I was concerned about community spread,” Dones recalled. “If these are folks who are experiencing unsheltered homelessness, and they come in for the weather, [we don’t want then to] go back to an encampment or meet up with a friend” after being exposed to COVID.

Over the course of a long morning and afternoon, many of the infected shelter guests did make it to hotels, including 16 rooms leased by the Low Income Housing Institute, where LIHI director Sharon Lee said they were able to stay and recuperate for at least 10 days. A smaller number moved to rooms at one of the county’s official isolation and quarantine sites, which admitted a total of 74 people (from anywhere in the county, not just shelters) between Christmas and New Year’s Day. And an unknown number of infected people went back out on the street.

“The optimal strategy is [for shelter guests] to isolate and quarantine in a safe and separate facility from others, but that’s just not possible right now.”—King County Public Health Officer Dr. Jeff Duchin

Moving as many people as possible into hotels was “a hail Mary at,like, 7am,” Dones said—one that neither the city nor the county planned for in advance. “Access Transit picked up some folks over the course of the day. The HOPE Team staff were were able, once they got vans, to get people to where they needed to be. And Tanya and I were the on-site staff, keeping folks fed, getting them badged in [to City Hall] to go to the bathroom, all the things.”

By all accounts, the joint effort by HSD, shelter providers, King County, and the regional authority prevented many of those infected at City Hall from going directly back onto the street—a positive outcome for both individual and public health. But the fact that this outcome required a heroic, last-minute effort illustrates the fragility of King County’s system for responding to COVID outbreaks among the region’s homeless population.

Seattle hadn’t planned to open an emergency shelter at City Hall; in all its pre-winter weather planning, the city assumed it would need just two shelters—one run by Compass Housing in Pioneer Square, the other run by the Salvation Army at Seattle Center—to handle the demand. This assumption was based on experience; historically, people living unsheltered have preferred to wait out subfreezing temperatures in their tents rather than risk losing all their possessions to sleep on a cot in a crowded shelter that they are forced to leave at 7am. Nonetheless, after days of temperatures in the teens and 20s, the two shelters were maxed out, and the city contracted with the Urban League to open a third location.

CDC guidelines for congregate (mass) homeless shelters call for maintaining at least six feet between shelter guests at all times, including while guests are asleep, although King County Public Health guidelines acknowledge this may not be possible during emergencies. At peak, between 60 and 70 people were sleeping on cots in the lobby of City Hall. During the day, shelter guests moved to the Bertha Knight Landes Room, an enclosed meeting room with an official pre-pandemic capacity of 200.

It’s unclear exactly how many people were infected during the outbreak, but reports from people who were physically present or who tried to help infected people isolate after the shelter closed on January 3 suggest the number was at least in the dozens, including five of the six Urban League staffers who worked at the site. (The Urban League did not respond to a request for comment.) King County Public Health confirmed the five staff infections but would only confirm one case among shelter guests. This may be because people who stay in homeless shelters, unlike staffers, are not routinely tested for COVID exposure, so their infections do not always show up on official tallies.

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Current King County COVID guidelines call for anyone staying in a shelter who develops COVID symptoms to “shelter in place” by moving to another area of the shelter or, if possible, into a designated room for COVID-positive shelter guests. The county recently reduced the isolation period for COVID-infected shelter guests and staff from 10 days to five, and eliminated the quarantine period completely for fully vaccinated people. These new guidelines are in keeping with a recent (and controversial) CDC update, but are out of sync with King County Public Health’s official guidelines for people in congregate settings, including homeless shelters, which call for 10 days of isolation for people with COVID and two weeks of quarantine for those exposed to a COVID-positive person.

The highly transmissible omicron COVID variant has dramatically increased the demand for the county’s limited supply of official isolation and quarantine beds, which include on-site, 24-hour medical staff, behavioral health care providers, and other services.

“This omicron surge is overwhelming the number of  available spots we have in [isolation and quarantine] facilities,” King County’s public health officer, Dr. Jeff Duchin, said. “We’re working to actively acquire more spaces in those facilities, but I don’t believe we’re going to ever be able to keep up with the number of cases that occur. … The optimal strategy is isolate and quarantine in a safe and separate facility from others, but that’s just not possible right now.” Continue reading “County’s COVID Response System Was Ill-Prepared for Major Homeless Shelter Outbreak”

Public Defenders Union Joins Jail Guards’ Call to Address COVID Crisis

The King County jail in downtown Seattle (Paul Kiefer/PubliCola)

By Paul Kiefer

An overwhelming surge of COVID-19 infections among staff and inmates at King County jails has spurred a rare alliance between the unions representing the county’s correctional officers and public defenders, which sent a joint letter to elected officials in Seattle and King County on Friday asking for an immediate intervention to reduce the jail’s population and stem the spread of the virus.

“COVID-19 should not be a death sentence for anyone held in a jail or anyone working in a jail,” the unions wrote. “The stark reality is that if no changes are made, people will continue to get sick and continue to suffer.”

The two labor organizations typically represent opposite perspectives in the criminal legal system, a tension they acknowledged in their letter as a sign of the dire need for emergency actions. To reduce the jails’ populations, the unions pushed the county to immediately stop booking people into jail for non-violent offenses, to stop issuing warrants for misdemeanor and non-violent offenses, and to “make plans for the immediate release of all misdemeanor and non-violent offenders.” The unions also pressed county officials to prioritize improving staffing and workplace safety at the jail.

The jails face a severe staffing shortage, with 50 corrections officers out sick and another 100 vacant officer positions that the county has struggled to fill. “Fear, tension, and confusion are sweeping our jails nearly as quickly as COVID,” the unions wrote.

In response, the King County Prosecutor’s Office has expressed its openness to moving more inmates to electronic home monitoring to reduce crowding, though many of the people held in jail under the prosecutor’s purview are charged with violent offenses. Meanwhile, new Seattle City Attorney Ann Davison has expressed her intentions to more aggressively pursue misdemeanor prosecutions of “quality of life” crimes like shoplifting and carrying a concealed firearm without a permit—a plan that could be at cross purposes with the unions’ push to reduce the jail population.

As of Friday afternoon, 197 of the 1,388 people held in King County jails had tested positive for COVID-19, and a total of 288 people were in quarantine. That total has risen astronomically since the start of the new year: the number of infections in King County jails was in the single digits for months until the last week of December. The jails also face a severe staffing shortage, with 50 corrections officers out sick and another 100 vacant officer positions that the county has struggled to fill. “Fear, tension, and confusion are sweeping our jails nearly as quickly as COVID,” the unions wrote.

According to King County Adult and Juvenile Detention (DAJD) spokesman Noah Haglund, the scale of the outbreak overwhelmed the space and staffing limitations of the Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent, where the county has housed COVID-positive inmates for most of the pandemic. DAJD is now also housing COVID-positive inmates at the King County Correctional Facility in downtown Seattle, and it has limited out-of-cell time for anyone in quarantine to 30 minutes or less per day. People in quarantine at the downtown Seattle jail, Haglund added, are likely to have more out-of-cell time because of the layout of the housing units. At both facilities, the DAJD has provided radios and games to people in quarantine. Continue reading “Public Defenders Union Joins Jail Guards’ Call to Address COVID Crisis”

Hospital Overcrowding Prompts Push For Guardianship and Informed Consent Reforms

King County COVID data as of January 14, 2022

By Leo Brine

Seattle Rep. Nicole Macri (D-43) is working on a bill to reform Washington’s informed consent and guardianship laws, which have prevented hospitals from discharging some patients who need long-term care at a time when hospitals need as many beds as possible to handle the latest spike in COVID cases.

Washington’s guardianship and informed consent laws have prevented hospitals and family members from transferring some patients who cannot make decisions for themselves into long-term care facilities even when a family member has given consent. Macri has a bill cued up which will address the problem, she said.

While the state’s informed consent laws empower family members to make many decisions for incapacitated people, they don’t allow incapacitated patients to leave hospitals for long-term care without the consent of a court-appointed guardian. The reason? Money: Guardians are responsible for paying for long-term care.

It can take months for courts to establish someone as a patient’s guardian, so Macri wants to amend the state’s informed consent laws to make it easier for patients to move to long-term care facilities while allowing courts to establish guardianship for the patient’s long-term financial management later.

Right now, hospitals have patients occupying hospital beds that could be used to treat people with acute needs because they don’t have a paper saying who’s going to front the bill.

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As of January 12, Washington state has 2,062 COVID patients in hospitals with 172 on ventilators, according to state data. In King County, hospitalizations more than doubled between January 2 and January 9, county data shows.

Hospitals in Washington have said they are in “a state of crisis” after operating for months at high capacity and now with omicron sending more people to the hospital than ever before.

The Washington State Medical Association sent Governor Jay Inslee a letter last week saying that hospitals are in “a state of crisis” and asking the governor to change guardianship laws so that family members can agree to transfers. The letter included the draft of a proclamation that, if Inslee signed, would have that efect.

However, Inslee said last week that he does not have the executive authority to make the proclamation because, “you have to comply with federal law to admit someone to a long-term care facility. I cannot waive federal law.”

Instead, the governor—inadvertently highlighting the need for Macri’s fix—announced Thursday that he hopes to increase the number of social service workers who work on patient transfers. He also proposed create a program to expedite the process of establishing guardianships and increase the number of guardians, which could help reduce the backlog of patients stuck in hospitals. “[This] may involve more resources for the superior court,” he said. Additionally, to help long-term care facilities take on more discharged hospital patients, he’d add new health care workers to long term care facilities.

Macri says her bill is still necessary because establishing guardianship “can still take months even with the steps that [Inslee is] putting in place.” Her bill will change informed consent laws to allow family members, those with power of attorney, and other surrogate decision makers to consent to a patient’s transfer to a long-term facility.

Macri plans to meet with the governor’s team about her bill to hammer out how it fits in with Inslee’s plans and to address some concerns the governor’s office has around informed consent. One potential sticking point is that, according to Macri, Inslee’s team is sticking with their position that only guardians should be able to make these transfers happen.

Meanwhile, patients without guardians are not the only ones who are having a hard time getting out of hospitals. Often, there are no shelter beds available for homeless patients. And some patients came to the hospital from long-term care facilities but are unable to go back into their care because of understaffing.

Seattle’s Winter Homelessness Response: A Look Back (and Forward)

By Erica C. Barnett

On Christmas Eve 2008, after a series of snowstorms paralyzed the city for most of a week, then-mayor Greg Nickels made an offhand comment that became a major factor in his election loss the following year. Asked to grade his administration on its response to the winter weather, Nickels gave himself a “B,” praising his transportation department and its director, Grace Crunican, for performing admirably during several successive snowstorms that hampered the city’s ability to clear roads and sidewalks.

Nickels was roundly derided for his blithe self-assessment. Since then, mayors have been reluctant to publicly reckon with their performance during weather emergencies, even as those emergencies have become more frequent.

Jenny Durkan presided over Seattle’s response to the most recent weather emergency; Bruce Harrell, and the new King County Homelessness Authority, will oversee the region’s next one. And while the city has undoubtedly become more savvy and prepared when it comes to clearing snow and slush from streets, its efforts to keep unsheltered people alive and warm during the harshest weather have not kept up with the growing need. Here’s a look at how the city’s systems for keeping unsheltered people alive in the cold held up during the winter weather emergency, and some thoughts about how they could do better in the future.

Shelter

As PubliCola reported last month, under Mayor Jenny Durkan, the city ended its past practice of funding winter-only shelters, saying that they have “replaced” these seasonal shelters with year-round options that are open 24 hours a day. While 24-hour, year-round shelters are undoubtedly an improvement on shelters that close in the spring, they are not a substitute. And the number of new shelter beds represented a tiny fraction of the growing need over the last four yers. In total, the Durkan Administration added just 350 permanent shelter beds during Durkan’s time in office (a number that does not include 150 hotel-based COVID shelters that will shut down at the end of this month).

In lieu of winter-only, 24-hour shelters, the city set aside funds to open two short-term, nighttime-only shelters for up to 15 days each, with an initial capacity of just over 200 beds. The two bare-bones shelters, run by the Salvation Army at Seattle Center and the Compass Housing Alliance in Pioneer Square, respectively, opened at 7pm and closed 12 hours later. Compass runs a day center at the same site as its nighttime shelter and allowed clients and shelter guests to stay there until the center closed at 4pm each day, while Salvation Army guests had to walk to the Seattle Center Armory and wait for it to open at 10am each day.)

“We hear a general disinterest in leaving personal property unattended or behind, a preference for use of the 24-hour year-round locations with services specific to people experiencing homelessness like hygiene services or other supportive services, a preference for any locations open to have food, a preference to shelter in place with request for harm reduction warming supplies.” —Jenna Franklin, Human Services Department

Once it was clear there would be more demand for overnight shelter than the city originally anticipated, officials acted quickly, expanding the size of the Salvation Army shelter and opening City Hall as an overnight shelter run by the Urban League, with initial room for about 30 people. (City Hall expanded to 24 hours on December 27.) Three additional shelters opened outside downtown, two in Lake City and one in West Seattle, with a total capacity of about 70 people, on December 27 and 28. Only one, a 16-bed shelter at a VFW hall in West Seattle, was open 24 hours a day.

Although hundreds of people did go into shelter at night, the shelters were not completely full, and those outside downtown Seattle were especially underutilized. One common reason people do not come into emergency nighttime shelters, as opposed to 24-hour shelters with storage and (in some cases) semi-private sleeping quarters, is that they don’t want to risk losing all their stuff by abandoning their tents, including survival gear and sleeping bags that can be difficult to haul from place to place.

“.We hear a general disinterest in leaving personal property unattended or behind, a preference for use of the 24-hour year-round locations with services specific to people experiencing homelessness like hygiene services or other supportive services, a preference for any locations open to have food, a preference to shelter in place with request for harm reduction warming supplies like blankets, hand warmers, hats, gloves, etc. (which we continue to order and provide),” Jenna Franklin, a spokeswoman for the Human Services Department, told PubliCola last week. These barriers to shelter are longstanding and ongoing, and familiar to the city from its experience with previous weather emergencies.

Transportation

Another reason people frequently don’t come indoors during harsh winter conditions, according to the city and service providers, is that they lack a way to get from wherever they ordinarily stay (an encampment in a public park in Northwest Seattle, say) to a temporary shelter or daytime warming center across town.

While the city did send out a handful of vans to pick up unsheltered people and bring them to shelters, their offers of transportation consisted primarily of Metro bus tickets, which were useless on routes that were canceled or only running sporadically because of the snow and ice. People with mobility impairments were particularly challenged—those who use wheelchairs or walkers can’t easily get into vans without lifts, and larger vans with lifts can only be operated by drivers with commercial driver’s licenses, who were also needed to run snow plows.

“There has been some reticence about, if go to this particular shelter right now and it closes, and don’t have the opportunity to get to the warming shelter, what will I do?”—Jon Ehrenfeld, Health One

The fact that the city’s primary form of outreach was through the HOPE Team probably didn’t help. The team, which ordinarily does outreach to people living in encampments the city is about to remove, was out looking for people throughout the week, but encampment residents often mistrust a team that, for the majority of the year, is directly associated with sweeps.

The city’s decision to open separate daytime and nighttime shelters, instead of ensuring that people could stay inside, in one location, for the duration of the winter emergency, also created transportation issues. Although Franklin said many of the warming centers were “adjacent” to nighttime shelters, this was only true in the case of the Pioneer Square (Compass) and Seattle Center (Salvation Army) shelters; the Lake City Community Center warming center was located a half-mile away from the nearest shelter, and the other four community center-based warming centers were nowhere near any nighttime shelter at all.

“From what I’ve heard, it’s the discontinuity between daytime and nighttime shelters” that led many unsheltered people to decline shelter offers during the emergency, Jon Ehrenfeld, a program manager with the Seattle Fire Department’s Health One program, said. “There has been some reticence about, if go to this particular shelter right now and it closes, and don’t have the opportunity to get to the warming shelter, what will I do?”

Ehrenfeld said Health One focused mostly on handing out blankets and other survival supplies, thermoses filled with hot water for soup, and food. The mobile units, like other city departments responding to the emergency, were short-staffed due to COVID and still responding to non-acute emergency calls unrelated to the weather, Ehrenfeld said.

Daytime Warming Centers

In addition to the daytime warming centers at the Compass and Salvation Army shelters, the city opened up four community centers and one park building as warming sites—Lake City, Northgate, Rainier Beach, International District/Chinatown, and Building 46 at Magnuson Park. Almost no one used these locations. On several days, the Rainier Beach, International District, and Magnuson locations stood empty (according to the city’s Parks Department, the “average” usage at the Magnuson site was zero), while the other locations served one or two people at a time. The most-utilized site, Lake City, peaked at a total of eight people over the course of one day. Continue reading “Seattle’s Winter Homelessness Response: A Look Back (and Forward)”

King County Won’t Proactively Test Shelter Guests; SPD Sex Crime Case Referrals Plummet; Harrell Announces Appointments

1. King County Public Health will not provide routine COVID-19 tests for people who enter temporary winter shelters during the cold-weather emergency, a spokeswoman for the department told PubliCola. Instead, the department will test shelter guests when a shelter provider calls to report having two or more guests or staff with “COVID-like illness,” or one or more confirmed COVID cases, and will direct people to isolation and quarantine sites if they test positive. The county will also do contract tracing when there’s a confirmed COVID case at a shelter site.

“Public Health does not have the staffing capacity to provide proactive, daily testing at each of these sites,” the spokeswoman, Kate Cole, said. “As we do for all other homeless services sites in King County, if a shelter has staff or residents who appear to have COVID-like illness, our homeless services support team will provide on-site testing and consultation to help control any potential COVID spread.”

When the department gets word of a possible COVID outbreak in any homeless shelter, including winter emergency shelters, “Our testing team calls the shelter to discuss the individual symptoms to determine if it is likely COVID-like illness, in addition to providing ASAP guidance on steps to take to limit spread, and then (assuming team believes it is COVID-like illness), our team visits to conduct on-site testing for all staff and residents who agree to be tested,” the spokeswoman, Kate Cole, said.

The spread of the omicron variant has been startling, with positive rates at some testing sites nearing 50 percent. That’s for the general population; people living in crowded congregate settings, such as bare-bones mass homeless shelters, are even more at risk. Cole said the health department is not currently experiencing a shortage of rapid COVID tests.

2. The Seattle Police Department has referred roughly one-quarter fewer cases to the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office’s sex crimes and child abuse unit this year than it did before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The number of felony cases that SPD referred to the prosecutor’s office dropped sharply in the first months of the pandemic. In May 2020, the office received 30 felony sex crimes cases from SPD; in June, the office received fewer than half that number. While the number of monthly referrals has fluctuated since then, the average over the past eighteen months has fallen to 19 cases, compared to an average of 26 cases per month before the pandemic.

While a reduction in SPD’s ranks after two years of high attrition—and the resultant transfer of many SPD detectives, who are responsible for criminal investigations, to patrol units since last fall—may contribute to the decline, the trend is not limited to Seattle. At a presentation to the mayors of the largest South King County cities earlier this month, the prosecutor’s office presented data showing a widespread decline in the number of felony cases referred to their office from police departments across the county. The police departments of Kent, Renton, Federal Way and Auburn, for instance, have referred nearly 30 percent fewer felony cases to the prosecutor’s office since the start of the pandemic.

Other reasons for the shift may include a decline in the number of people reporting sex crimes and child abuse. PubliCola has reached out to SPD for comment.

3. Mayor-elect Bruce Harrell announced another round of leadership appointments on Wednesday, including the sister of police-violence victim Che Taylor, a leader of King County’s No Youth Jail movement, a former state legislator and Seattle Port Commissioner, and a reality-TV producer. Continue reading “King County Won’t Proactively Test Shelter Guests; SPD Sex Crime Case Referrals Plummet; Harrell Announces Appointments”

As Omicron Cases Surge, King County Jail Vaccination Rate Reaches New High

Norm Maleng Regional Justice Center
Photo via Kingcounty.gov.

By Paul Kiefer

Nine months into the campaign to vaccinate people held in King County’s three detention centers, jail health staff have fully vaccinated more than 2,000 people. The effort shows no signs of abating. But with cases of the highly contagious Omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus surging in Seattle and King County, the risk of serious outbreaks among jail inmates and staff is also far from over.

As of Monday, December 27, the King County Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention (DAJD) recorded twenty new COVID-19 infections among people in custody. The new cases mark one of the largest spikes since the department’s vaccination campaign began in March, when nearly 50 inmates tested positive for the virus in a span of three weeks. After several smaller surges over the summer, infections in the jails remained consistently low from mid-September until last week, when the latest surge began.

The population of the jails turns over frequently. In the first half of 2021, the average inmate spent just over a month in custody. The constant flow of new arrivals, combined with the transmission risk posed by guards and jail staff, makes it difficult to completely curtail the spread of the virus behind bars. In total, DADJ has recorded 355 cases of the virus among inmates since the pandemic began. However, as a result of the pandemic, King County’s jails also hold far fewer people than in the recent past. Since the start of the pandemic, the county’s inmate population has fallen by nearly a third, with 1338 people in custody as of last Tuesday.

When a person arrives at a jail in King County for booking, health staff test them for COVID-19 and offer them a chance to get vaccinated. When the vaccination program began at the end of March, 101 inmates received vaccines in the span of a single week. After a surge of takers in April and May, the pace of vaccination slowed; since June, health staff have vaccinated an average of 291 people per month.

Because of the high turnover, it has been a challenge for jail staffers to keep pace with the county’s overall vaccination rate, which recently passed 75 percent. The vaccination rate behind bars hovered around 50 percent for much of the summer, although it has risen to 65 percent as of this week.

“The people we serve have as many questions as anyone else about the COVID-19 vaccine,” said King County Jail Health Division Director Danotra McBride. “A significant portion of our incarcerated patients have been hesitant to receive the vaccine since it first became available, but we’re happy to see hesitancy decreasing over time.” To boost the vaccination rate among the incarcerated population, jail health staffers have begun offering vaccines to inmates during every clinic visit, and jail administrators have brought infectious disease experts to talk with people in custody at the jails in Seattle and Kent.

The arrival of the Omicron variant in King County—which, as of last Tuesday, made up a third of the county’s total recent infections—creates a new challenge for the county’s jail population and health workers. The new variant is more resistant to existing COVID-19 vaccines, presenting a challenge to jail health staff just as the vaccination campaign began to pick up steam once again.

Eco Blocks Update, Sawant Replacement Rumors, Another Preventable Outbreak,and Another Sweep In Ballard

City Light anti-RV fencing

1. Last week, PubliCola reported on the widespread use of “ecology blocks” to prevent people living in RVs from parking on the street in the Ballard industrial area. Although blocking public right-of-way without a permit  is against the law, the city’s transportation department has chosen not to enforce the law, and at least two government agencies—the US Postal Service and Seattle City Light—have installed their own barricades to keep RV residents at bay.

Seattle City Light spokeswoman Julie Moore, following up on our questions from late November, said the electric utility decided to install a double line of fencing, which completely blocks the sidewalk on the north side of its Canal substation in Ballard, after two RVs caught fire next to the substation earlier this year.

City Light installed the fencing, at a cost of about $15,000 a year, “to mitigate risks to our critical infrastructure, specifically lines that provide communications to the System Operations Center and 26kV capacitor banks, which, if damaged, would create a power loss at the King County Wastewater Treatment Plan,” Moore said.

Moore said City Light did not install the eco-blocks that block off parking on the south side of the substation.

Ethan Bergerson, a spokesman for the Seattle Department of Transportation, said the department’s street use team “is working with Seattle City Light to consider possible solutions to create a pathway or detour for pedestrians while still addressing their safety concerns.”

“Without access to shelter—especially access to a toilet, a place to wash your hands, and clean water – this type of outbreak should come as no surprise, and is an exceedingly difficult problem to control.”

2. As voters in Seattle City Council District 3 decide the fate of City Councilmember Kshama Sawant in a recall election today, the city council is reportedly already mulling her potential replacement.

One name that has risen to the top of the list is that of Alex Hudson, the director of the Transportation Choices Coalition. Hudson, who first rose to prominence as the pro-transit, pro-density director of the First Hill Improvement Association and the co-founder of the website Seattlish, told PubliCola, “I like the job I have now,” adding that she “never wanted to be a politician” or subject her family to the kind of toxicity elected officials have to endure. (Case in point: The Kshama Sawant recall election).

Another rumored contender, Marjorie Restaurant owner and Capitol Hill EcoDistrict executive director Donna Moodie, said she had heard her name “mentioned as well,” but added, “I am currently so enthusiastic for the work I’m doing at Community Roots Housing [formerly Capitol Hill Housing that I can’t imagine anything distracting me from that.”

3. Shigella, a gastrointestinal disease that can be prevented by providing access to soap and running water, is on the rise again among Seattle’s homeless population. According to King County Public Health, there were 13 documented cases of shigella among people experiencing homelessness in King County in November.

According to the Seattle Human Services Department, as of late last week, the HOPE Team had relocated 51 people living at the Ballard Commons into tiny house villages or emergency shelter.

Additionally, Public Health spokeswoman Kate Cole said the agency has see more reports of diarrheal illness in general, “but we have no testing or other clinical details to indicate type of illness, so we don’t know if this could be Shigella, norovirus, some other pathogen, or something non-infectious.”

Since the beginning of the pandemic almost two years ago, advocates have asked the city to provide access to running water and soap so that people living unsheltered can prevent the spread not just of COVID but of other diseases more likely to be transmitted by unwashed hands, like shigella and cryptosporidiosis, which can result in severe illness and hospitalization. To date, the city still has not installed the street sinks the city council funded in 2020, citing a dizzying array of supposed logistical and public health problems with giving homeless people opportunities to wash their hands.

(Update: A Seattle Public Utilities spokesperson says two sinks have been installed, and that the utilities department “is evaluating all hygiene options, including street sinks and hygiene stations, to better understand challenges. To date, provider willingness to host a sink appears to be one of the greatest barriers.” As PubliCola reported earlier this year, providers have expressed frustration that the city is holding them solely responsible for meeting the requirements it has established for any sink to operate, including total ADA compliance and hooking the sinks up to the city’s water supply.)

“Pathogens that cause GI illnesses, including Shigella, are highly transmissible, particularly in settings with large numbers of people living unsheltered,” Cole said. “Without access to shelter—especially access to a toilet, a place to wash your hands, and clean water – this type of outbreak should come as no surprise, and is an exceedingly difficult problem to control.”

4. Outreach workers and members of the city’s HOPE Team, which offers shelter placements to people living in encampments the city plans to sweep, have relocated most of the people living at the Ballard Commons and behind Broadview Thomson elementary in the Bitter Lake neighborhood in preparation for the closure of both encampments. The Commons, incidentally, has been the site of several previous outbreaks of shigella and other gastrointestinal illnesses. Continue reading “Eco Blocks Update, Sawant Replacement Rumors, Another Preventable Outbreak,and Another Sweep In Ballard”

County Police Oversight Office Expands, Campaign for Council President Begins, State Still Using Solitary Confinement Cells for COVID Quarantine

1. King County’s Office of Law Enforcement Oversight (OLEO), which audits King County Sheriff’s Office policies and reviews misconduct investigations by the sheriff’s office, is set to grow next year after the King County Council added two new positions to the office—a first step, OLEO Director Tamer Abouzeid said, in his long-term plans to expand the responsibilities and reach of the office.

County voters approved a charter amendment in 2015 empowering OLEO to investigate misconduct and serious uses of force by sheriff’s officers, but the county’s contract with the King County Police Officers’ Guild—the union representing most of the rank-and-file sheriff’s officers—stripped OLEO of most of its investigative authority in 2020. The office is now mostly an advisory body.

Last year, OLEO flagged problems with objectivity or thoroughness in five of the 56 use-of-force investigations it reviewed. The office has only one designated staffer to review more than 100 investigations a year, out of hundreds of investigations by the sheriff’s office. This has meant “a lot of triaging to manage the workload,” Abouzeid said. For now, his office focuses its energy on investigations into alleged biased policing or excessive force.

One of the two new staffers will join OLEO’s investigation review team. The second will be on the office’s policy analysis team, part of Abouzeid’s push to expand his office’s role as a quasi-think tank on police oversight policy for Washington state. “We would like to see statewide policy to codify the roles of civilian oversight bodies, because otherwise oversight becomes a hodgepodge of what police unions negotiate into their contracts,” he said.

King County is preparing to negotiate a new contract with the King County Police Officers’ Guild after the current contract expires at the end of the month, which could be a chance for the county to restore OLEO’s authority to investigate misconduct and serious uses of force. In October, the county council asked OLEO to submit suggestions for improvements to the next contract. “Our plan is to be able to do the job that voters wanted us to do,” Abouzeid said. “That takes a new contract, and it also means that we’ll need to keep adding staff in the near future.”

The council also approved some expansions of the sheriff’s budget, including more than $1 million for emphasis patrols around the county courthouse and $4 million to offer hiring and retention incentives to sheriff’s officers.

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2. City council members Debora Juarez, who represents North Seattle, and Lisa Herbold, who represents West Seattle, are reportedly both lobbying colleagues to serve as City Council President next year. Lorena González, the current council president, gave up her council seat to run for mayor, leaving the position open. The council selects its own president every two years, or when the seat becomes vacant because a council member leaves.

The city council president is in charge of committee assignments, presides over regular council meetings, and is nominally in charge of the entire legislative department. The job typically goes to a senior council member, but not every council member gets to be president; embattled Councilmember Kshama Sawant, who has served on the council longer than any other current member, has never held the role.

Over the years, council presidents have interpreted the job, which is not clearly defined in the city charter, in different ways; while some have used the position to delegate work to other council members based on their colleagues’ interests and expertise, others have used it to raise the profile of the council as a whole, serving as a diplomat to or adversary with the mayor’s office, depending on the issue (and the mayor). Council presidents have also tried, with varying degrees of success, to present the council as a united group with shared interests—a quasi-fiction that has been harder to maintain as the council has become more fractured.

Neither Juarez nor Herbold responded to requests for comment. However, earlier this week, more than a dozen Native American leaders issued statements supporting Juarez for council president—an unusual instance of lobbying for an internal council position

One of the letters, signed by the leaders of Chief Seattle Club, the Seattle Indian Health Board, United Indians of All Tribes, and other Seattle-based Native groups, praised Juarez, a member of the Blackfeet Nation, for her work securing funds to address urban Native homelessness, establishing the city’s first Indigenous Advisory Council, and working on behalf of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

3. A facility-wide COVID-19 outbreak at the Monroe Correctional Complex in Snohomish County has left dozens of sick inmates in solitary confinement cells to quarantine. Although the state Department of Corrections announced in October that it would no longer use solitary confinement as a form of punishment, the department has repurposed the cells as quarantine facilities since the start of the pandemic. Continue reading “County Police Oversight Office Expands, Campaign for Council President Begins, State Still Using Solitary Confinement Cells for COVID Quarantine”

Vaccine Mandate Applies to Incarcerated Workers; Anti-Vax Conspiracy Theorist Runs for Hospital Board

1. According to a memo issued to all Washington Department of Corrections inmates last week, the state’s vaccine mandate does apply to some incarcerated workers. The memo clears up one point of confusion in a larger and ongoing debate about whether inmates qualify as state workers.

As of October 26, the DOC will require vaccinations for positions on Department of Natural Resources (DNR) work crews, Department of Veteran’s Affairs (DVA) work crews, and for positions with Correctional Industries, the semi-autonomous business conglomerate run by the DOC, that involve working outside of the state’s 12 prisons. Any unvaccinated incarcerated workers have until December 13 to complete the vaccine regimen; for now, the DOC will not allow them to return to work.

The department is allowing incarcerated people to apply for medical or religious exemptions from the mandate. The DOC has not yet responded to PubliCola’s inquiries about the exemption process, nor have they specified how many workers are subject to the mandate.

Vaccination rates among people in DOC custody have slightly outstripped the state’s overall rate of 73 percent: more than three-quarters of all inmates are fully vaccinated. In mid-September, the vaccination rate for DOC staff was significantly lower—around 40 percent—and the department has begun the process of firing more than 300 staffers who refused to comply with the state’s mandate.

Despite the relatively high vaccination rate, COVID-19 infections remain a persistent problem in the DOC’s prisons and work release facilities. On Thursday, the department instituted a lockdown at the Cedar Creek Correctional Center near Centralia to contain an outbreak of the virus; meanwhile, the Clallam Bay Correctional Center on the Olympic Peninsula is still recovering from a dramatic surge in cases in late August and September.

Although the number of new vaccinations that will result from the mandate is still unknown, any increase in vaccinations among incarcerated people could become even more important as the DOC begins an effort to shift hundreds of inmates from prisons to work release facilities and home monitoring in the coming months. That project—a continuation of last year’s efforts to reduce prison populations in response to the pandemic—also involves adding bunks at the dozen work release centers around the state in anticipation of new arrivals; as those centers become more crowded, vaccination campaigns will become even more vital for the safety of people in custody.

2. Even if you vote faithfully in every election, you may not pay always make it to the bottom of the ballot, where the fire and rescue commissioners, sewer board members, and cemetery commissioners tend to languish. But maybe you should—especially if you live in Renton, where a anti-vax COVID denier who peddled election conspiracy theories and bragged about being in Washington, D.C. on January 6 is running for a position on the hospital board that oversees Valley Medical Center, in Washington.

Katie Bachand, a doula who graduated from the Seattle Midwifery School and Bastyr University, portrays herself in the King County  King County Voters’ Guide as a fiscally-minded reformer who wants to “return control of our Hospital District to the voters” and “stop the Trustees from taking your property taxes to fund whatever they deem to be necessary expenditures, including the salary of the CEO, without a vote from the Board of Commissioners!”

But in private social media posts, Bachand has promoted disinformation about COVID, including the “theory” that vaccinations cause the disease, promoted posts calling the pandemic itself a “psy-op,” not a pandemic”), referred to vaccine mandates as “Nazi[sm],” and promoted untested “cures” for COVID such as ivermectin, the much-mocked horse dewormer that the FDA has warned is not a treatment for COVID. In one September post, Bachand suggested that the government manufactured the COVID crisis to convince people to “accept a shot that changes our dna. This is all factual and from the Bible- no conspiracy theory ideas….”

As recently as August 21, Bachand encouraged nurses and other public employees to resist vaccine mandates in order to “win against tyranny”. Bachand also bragged about being in Washington, D.C. for former president Trump’s January 6th “Stop the Steal” rally claiming that “the truth is coming out that the F Bee Eye was behind it”—lingo meant to evade Facebook’s misinformation filters—and claimed in September that Joe Biden’s election should be decertified because “the audit showed over 57,000 fraudulent votes.”

Monique Taylor-Swan, Bachand’s opponent, is a certified home care aid and a board member of Service Employees International Union 775 with a long list of union and Democratic Party endorsements. According to the Progressive Voters Guide, Taylor-Swan wants to focus on “proper staffing and making pay more equitable between the highest-paid executives and underpaid nurses and staff” at Valley Medical.

—Paul Kiefer, Clara Coyote