Tag: COVID-19

COVID Outbreak at Monroe Prison Creates Confusion About Quarantine

By Paul Kiefer

A prison-wide outbreak of COVID-19 at the Monroe Correctional Complex in Snohomish County last month sickened hundreds of people and forced prison administrators to convert some wings of the prison into quarantine wards. Two weeks later, some of those who were placed in quarantine say that prison administrators have left them in the dark during the ordeal, leaving some unsure of whether they were, in fact, COVID-positive when they were placed in cells with sick inmates.

More than half, or 855, of the 1,600 people incarcerated at Monroe have tested positive for COVID-19 in the past 30 days, which represents roughly half of the prison’s total cases since the start of the pandemic. During smaller outbreaks, prison administrators transformed some of the prison’s solitary confinement cells into medical isolation pods for those with the most serious infections. The scale of January’s outbreak, however, overwhelmed the prison’s earlier quarantine strategies and prompted a complicated re-shuffling of prisoners.

In the prison’s largest housing complex, administrators chose to place COVID-positive prisoners in the C unit, which typically holds people convicted of sex offenses. People who were moved to the C unit, however, say that not everyone placed in quarantine is certain they were COVID-positive when they arrived.

Jeremiah Winchester, who tested positive for the virus, said that some C unit residents who tested negative for COVID-19 were left in their cells alongside new COVID-positive arrivals from elsewhere in the prison. “As far as they know, they weren’t sick when we got here,” he said, “but after all this time with us, they’ve probably caught the virus.” Another man incarcerated at Monroe, Darwin Williams, claimed that guards moved him to the C unit after his COVID rapid test came back with inconclusive results. “I still don’t know for sure if I was infected or not when I got here, and they haven’t tested me again,” he said.

A spokesperson for the Washington Department of Corrections (DOC) didn’t outright deny the inmates’ claims, telling PubliCola that the C unit “currently is housing only COVID-19 positive individuals,” and that prisoners who tested negative “have been removed” from the unit; the spokesperson did not specify when COVID-negative prisoners were removed from the unit. Continue reading “COVID Outbreak at Monroe Prison Creates Confusion About Quarantine”

Court Delays Jail Commitments During COVID Outbreak, Sweeps Ramp Up to Pre-COVID Status Quo, North Seattle Councilmember Defends Density

1. Seattle Municipal Court judges are instructing people they convict of misdemeanors to report to jail two months after their sentencing hearing, a decision related to a staffing crisis at the jails brought on by a surge of COVID-19 cases among staff and inmates in January. The judges consulted with jail administrators, defense attorneys and prosecutors from the Seattle City Attorney’s Office before deciding to temporarily stem the flow of people from the municipal court to the jail on January 14. There may be some exceptions: Defendants who were already in custody when the municipal court sentenced them to additional jail time, for example, may remain in custody.

The judges’ decision came just as the unions representing King County’s public defenders and corrections officers joined forces to raise the alarm as COVID-19 infections surged among both jail staff and inmates, overwhelming the jails’ quarantine units and placing dozens of guards on sick leave. The ensuing shortage of staff left many inmates locked in their cells for 23 or more hours a day, sometimes missing court dates and deliveries of prescription medication. The two unions have asked King County courts, along with the county executive and prosecutor’s office, to take emergency measures to reduce the jail population in response to the outbreak, albeit with little success.

The judges’ decision won’t prevent police officers from booking people into jail to await trial for a misdemeanor offense, though people facing misdemeanor charges or convicted of misdemeanors make up a relatively small portion of King County’s jail population.

2. Homeless service providers and advocates are reporting a sharp uptick in the number of encampments scheduled for sweeps with 48 hours’ notice on the grounds that they constitute “obstructions” or hazards in the public right-of-way. In addition, some encampment removals are happening outside the official list that providers receive directly from the city. Former mayor Jenny Durkan dramatically increased the pace of this type of sweep, which does not require any offers of shelter or services.

The city’s official encampment removal schedule, which does not include all sweeps, calls for three encampment removals and two RV site “cleans” in each week of February. Outreach providers have routinely pointed out that the number of shelter beds available on any night for all homeless people citywide is typically around one or two. The largest encampment scheduled for an official removal in February is at Dexter Avenue and Denny Way, where the city estimates there are 20 tents.

After a press conference on public safety Friday, deputy mayor Tiffany Washington told PublICola that the apparent rise in encampment removals was the city returning to normal, before the CDC’s COVID guidelines led the city to stop removing encampments. “Last year, in the last six months of the year, we removed some of the largest encampments that we’ve ever seen in city history,” Washington said. “Now the ones we have left is Woodland Park. So of course you are going to see an increase in removals, because now we’ve addressed the largest encampments. So it may appear like there’s more removals happening just randomly, but actually, it’s just getting back on track to the rhythm that we had before COVID-19.”

Outreach providers have routinely pointed out that the number of shelter beds available on any night for all homeless people citywide is typically around one or two. The largest encampment scheduled for an official removal in February is at Dexter Avenue and Denny Way, where the city estimates there are 20 tents.

3. Washington mentioned Friday that the city and King County Regional Homelessness Authority are working closely with community groups, like the Phinney Ridge Community Council, to address conditions at Woodland Park. The encampment was one of a couple of hot topics that came up during a recent presentation by City Councilmember Dan Strauss to the Phinney council, whose members complained about feeling unsafe because of the presence of so many homeless people relatively near their houses.

At Woodland Park, the city is trying to do what amounts to a slow sweep—removing people one or two at a time as shelter becomes available while attempting to discourage new people from moving in. One way the city is doing this, Strauss said, is by creating a “by-name list” (a fancy term for: a list) of everyone living in the park; people who are not on that list because they moved in after it was created won’t get access to shelter and assistance. “It’s very important for us to have a firm list so that we are able to measure success,” Strauss said.

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The meeting didn’t get particularly rowdy, though, until the conversation turned to  legislation sponsored by state Rep. Jessica Bateman (D-22, Olympia) that would allow very low-rise density—duplexes, triplexes, and four-unit buildings—in single-family areas like of Phinney Ridge, currently no-go zones for most renters and anyone who can’t afford the median house price of just under $1 million.

The community council, like many such groups created in the 1980s and 1990s as part of a single-family preservationist movement that persists today, is dominated by white homeowners who purchased their houses decades before Seattle’s population growth and cost of living took off in the current century. Their main talking points were based in an understanding of Seattle and its population and politics that has not noticeably evolved in 30 years: Why can’t all the density go in the places that “already have plenty of capacity to take it?” Didn’t Strauss know that neighborhoods like Phinney Ridge have already “accepted capacity way beyond the growth targets”? Why do density proponents want to eliminate all the “$650,000 starter houses” like “most of us got into our homes ages ago”?* Continue reading “Court Delays Jail Commitments During COVID Outbreak, Sweeps Ramp Up to Pre-COVID Status Quo, North Seattle Councilmember Defends Density”

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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We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different: We’re funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

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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”

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.

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

Fake Anti-Homeless Signs in Ballard, Public Health Says City Shouldn’t Cram People Back Into Shelter, and More

What size shovel would it take to yank these babies out?

1. The city has begun the process of closing down temporary “redistribution” shelters that opened last year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including a 130-bed shelter run by the Downtown Emergency Service Center at Seattle Center’s Exhibition Hall. The Human Services Department, which reports to Mayor Jenny Durkan, has asked DESCo begin the process of moving the people living at Exhibition Hall to other shelters, with the goal of emptying out the building the end of June.

The city hopes to move many of the Exhibition Hall residents to DESC’s existing Navigation Center, a 24-hour mass shelter in Pioneer Square that has been operating at reduced capacity throughout the pandemic, with about 36 people sleeping in communal rooms that used to shelter 85 a night.

However, after a recent site visit, representatives from the King County Public Health department recommended against “adding more residents to the communal sleeping rooms at this time.”

In a report on the visit, the health department’s Health Engagement Action Resource Team (HEART) noted a number of worrying conditions at the Navigation Center, including poor ventilation, lack of soap and hand sanitizer in restrooms, and bed spacing didn’t leave much room to squeeze more people in. Among other issues, the team noted that the windows in sleeping rooms didn’t open; air purifiers were sitting in storage; some exhaust fans weren’t working; and “[s]everal hand sanitizer and restroom soap dispensers were empty.”

Note: Good handwashing is far superior to using hand sanitizer,” the report noted, in a section that was both bold and highlighted. (Quick, someone tell Mayor Durkan!)

A spokesman for the public health department confirmed that the department “did not recommend that DESC immediately increase capacity [at the Navigation Center] before implementing the team’s recommendations, which the organization and the City of Seattle are reviewing.”

Ultimately, the decision to add more beds to the Navigation Center is up to DESC and the city; last week, DESC director Daniel Malone told PubliCola that additional beds were “desired but not yet possible due to [the] pandemic.”

In addition to figuring out how to increase capacity for existing clients at Exhibition Hall, the Navigation Center is a receiving site for the city’s HOPE Team (formerly known as the Navigation Team), which provides shelter referrals at “high-priority” encampments targeted for removal by the city. Even at full, pre-COVID capacity, the Navigation Center only had 85 beds, so restoring it to full capacity won’t provide enough spaces for everyone at Exhibition Hall and new referrals; other Exhibition Hall residents will be distributed to shelters around the city, as well as a new, county-funded hotel that will reportedly be announced soon.

2. A row of “No Camping” signs along Northwest 52nd Street in Ballard may express the city’s overall sentiment toward people living in tents and vehicles—as we’ve reported, the city has begun ramping up encampment sweeps as businesses and schools reopen. But they aren’t official, the Seattle Department of Transportation confirms.

It’s unclear who placed the blocks or signs in the right-of-way, or whether the two apparent acts of anti-homeless vigilantism are related.

The first indication that the signs are fake is their jarring design: Unlike the city’s parking signs, they’re brown with white lettering, with red “no” signs over images of a tent and an RV. The second sign is that where you would expect to see a phone number for the city, the signs list the website for their manufacturer: An online service called SmartSigns.com.

Meanwhile, less than a block away, on 14th Ave. NW, a series of “ecology blocks”—large concrete blocks ordinarily used to build retaining walls—have been moved into an area marked for one-hour parking, physically preventing both people living in vehicles and any other driver from using the parking spaces.

It’s unclear who placed the blocks or signs in the right-of-way, or whether the two apparent acts of anti-homeless vigilantism are related.

A spokeswoman for the Seattle Department of Transportation said they were not aware of the unauthorized signs and anti-parking blocks, and noted that the signs “are not enforceable by the Parking Enforcement group.” The process for removing the signs is lengthy and involves identifying the person who installed them and sending them a letter “requesting the removal of the unauthorized objects,” the spokeswoman said. SDOT did not explain why they can’t simply go out and remove the signs and blocks, which are on city right-of-way.

Council member Dan Strauss told PubliCola he has heard that homeless people “think that they will get housing if they come to Ballard”—a reference to the fact that, according to providers, people sometimes come to encampments that are scheduled for sweeps because the city’s HOPE Team has exclusive access to some of the most desirable shelter beds.

3. The unauthorized signs are about two blocks from Gilman Playfield, where the city removed dozens of people and tents in response to neighborhood complaints earlier this month. It’s even closer to two encampments on the city’s “priority” list for removals this week—one in front of Reuben’s Brews on 14th, and another along 8th Ave. NW between NW 46th and 47th Streets.

On Monday, District 6 city council member Dan Strauss, who represents the area, told PubliCola he has heard from multiple service providers that homeless people “think that they will get housing if they come to Ballard.” Continue reading “Fake Anti-Homeless Signs in Ballard, Public Health Says City Shouldn’t Cram People Back Into Shelter, and More”

Still No Street Sinks, Pedersen Tone-Polices Council Colleague, No Discipline for Cop who Retaliated Against Whistleblower

1. The nearly year-old debate over street sinks for people without access to indoor plumbing boiled over at last week’s meeting of the city council’s homelessness committee, as Seattle Public Utilities director Mami Hara outlined some of the Durkan Administration’s many objections to providing cheap, accessible places for people experiencing homelessness to wash their hands.

As PubliCola has reported, the city council funded street sinks last November, with a goal of quickly installing more than 60 simple sinks at key locations around the city. Access to clean running water and soap—not just hand sanitizer, which the city is currently considering as an alternative to sinks—is essential to preventing the spread of communicable diseases such as shigella, hepatitis, and cryptosporidiosis, which have spread among Seattle’s homeless population since the COVID-19 pandemic led to the closure of most publicly accessible sinks last spring.

Six months later, there are still no sinks on Seattle’s streets. Instead, the mayor’s office, SPU, and the Department of Neighborhoods have expanded the scope of the funding to include food waste disposal, “options for accessing safe drinking water,” and new ways to “reduce illegal dumping and litter.” Last month, the city put out a request for proposals for a new “Seattle Water & Waste Innovation Pilot” with the goal of picking two or more contractors later this month.

Council member Teresa Mosqueda, who chairs the council’s budget committee, said the council’s budget directive wasn’t “to evaluate what kind of additional programs or services should be investigated … it was, how fast can we get these dollars out the door for very low-cost, already proven handwashing strategies. So I would like to ask…. where are the handwashing facilities and why is it taking so long?”

The city also needed to ensure that the sinks are “really durable and resilient against lots and lots of things that can happen to them,” SPU director Mami Hara said, and to make sure they don’t present “a tripping hazard or another hazard.”

Andres Mantilla, Durkan’s DON director, responded the city had expedited the grant application process to move more quickly than usual. Hara added that although the council might find it “counterintuitive when your’e trying to get things out quickly to consider public health requirements,” the utility has an obligation to think about people’s safety. For example, she said, people could “cross-contaminate” sinks with germs if the water isn’t “continuous, reliable, and adequate.” The city also needed to ensure that the sinks are “really durable and resilient against lots and lots of things that can happen to them,” Hara said, and to make sure they don’t present “a tripping hazard or another hazard.”

“The point isn’t to build super sinks and only be able to afford five of them; the point is to be able to get sinks out throughout the city so that folks [can] have access to running water.”—Councilmember Tammy Morales

“I understand the frustration—it’s like, ‘Let’s just put a sink out there,’ versus making sure that it’s done in a way that does not cause injury or harm to folks as well,” Hara said.

In response, Mosqueda pointed out that the city expedited temporary permits for restaurant owners to put tables on sidewalks in response to COVID, and council member Tammy Morales noted that while she was glad to hear that the executive branch now wants to open up the application process to small groups besides the Clean Hands Collective, such as mutual aid groups, “this work was intended to be out the door months ago and we are entering the fourth wave now of COVID.”

“The point isn’t to build super sinks and only be able to afford five of them; the point is to be able to get sinks out throughout the city so that folks [can] have access to running water,” Morales said.

2. Later in the same meeting, Morales addressed public commenters, saying they should direct their anger about ongoing sweeps of homeless encampments at the mayor’s office (which oversees encampment removals) rather than the council (which has adopted legislation opposing them). After following that comment with a number of calm but pointed policy questions, Morales got a dressing-down from Durkan ally Alex Pedersen, who suggested she was being rude to executive department staff.

“I just want to implore my colleagues to strive to treat our city government colleagues with respect and to not question their intentions,” Pedersen said, admonishing Morales to “take the temperature down and treat our colleagues with respect.” 

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Pedersen’s tone-policing comments prompted Mosqueda to jump in. Morales, she said, had been “respectful and in order,” and her questions were “very much appropriate for the situation that we’re in—a year into the pandemic, when the CDC has continued to say that we should not be sweeping people if we had no alternative non-congregate options available.” We’ll have more on the state of outreach and encampment removals this afternoon.

3. Two officers who filed a complaint against Navigation Team director (and former SPD lieutenant) Sina Ebinger subsequently complained that a friend of Ebinger’s followed them in her police cruiser, cut them off, and threatened them with professional retaliation after Ebinger lost her assignment on the team, a newly released Office of Police Accountability case file reveals. Continue reading “Still No Street Sinks, Pedersen Tone-Polices Council Colleague, No Discipline for Cop who Retaliated Against Whistleblower”

City Says It’s Too Risky to Turn On Drinking Fountains, First-Time Candidate Sees Fundraising Surge, Capital Gains Tax Passes

Freeway Park water fountains. Photo by Joe Mabel via Wikimedia Commons.

1. Seattle Public Utilities confirmed that the city has only turned on 10 public water fountains downtown (and is working to repair a handful of others in the area), leaving the rest of the city’s public drinking fountains out of service during a pandemic that has greatly reduced access to clean drinking water for people experiencing homelessness.

According to a joint response to questions provided by the Parks Department and SPU, King County Public Health only asked the city to turn on its downtown fountains and “did not recommend turning on the rest of the city’s drinking fountains. Currently they are providing additional guidance about the rest of the city’s drinking fountains, and we will continue to follow their guidance.”

A spokesperson for King County Public Health said that in fact, the health department did ask the city to turn on drinking fountains citywide in response to an outbreak of shigella in late 2020 (which we covered here.) However, the spokesperson said, “When we talked to SPU and SPR about turning on the drinking fountains, they expressed concerns as to how many drinking fountains were fully functioning and the logistics involved in providing routine maintenance and cleaning.”

“Therefore,” the spokesperson said, “we recommended they use a phased approach to turning on the drinking fountains, starting with the drinking fountains in downtown Seattle.

“We’ve seen success in the downtown drinking fountains having been turned on and are now exploring with SPU/SPR having them turn on drinking fountains in additional parts of the city.”

The CDC guidelines the city provided do not appear to contain any recommendation that cities turn off public drinking fountains if they can’t clean them after each use. Instead, they note that there is no evidence COVID-19 can spread through drinking water and suggest cleaning frequently touched surfaces such as drinking fountains once a day.

Public Health director Patty Hayes told the Seattle/King County Board of Health earlier this month that providing access to potable water was one of the health department’s “top priorities,” along with providing access to soap and running water for people to wash their hands, water bottles, and other items. Thirst leads people with no other options to drink water from unsanitary sources, which leads to outbreaks of communicable diseases.

The Community Advisory Group of Seattle/King County Healthcare for the Homeless has been beating the drum about drinking water since the beginning of the pandemic, when they noted in a letter to Mayor Jenny Durkan that “[w]ithout access to clean drinking water, many of our unhoused population are drinking non-potable water which can lead to other public health crises such as the proliferation of Hepatitis A and giardia.” Since then, those concerns have been borne out over and over again.

Asked why the city hasn’t turned on its public drinking fountains outside downtown, Parks and SPU wrote, “SPU and SPR have been following the CDC guidance for drinking fountains safety during the pandemic that recommends cleaning them between uses, and turning them off if this is not possible.”

The CDC guidelines at the link the city provided do not appear to contain any recommendation that cities turn off public drinking fountains if they can’t clean them after each use. Instead, they note that there is no evidence COVID-19 can spread through drinking water and suggest cleaning frequently touched surfaces such as drinking fountains once a day.

The only reference the CDC guidelines make to shutting down drinking fountains comes in a section about large public events. That section says that event planners should “[c]lean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces within the venue at least daily or between uses as much as possible—for example, door handles, sink handles, drinking fountains, grab bars, hand railings, and cash registers.” If drinking fountains, “cannot be adequately cleaned and disinfected during an event,” the guidance continues, event planners should “consider closing” them.

2. Andrew Grant Houston, a first-time candidate who wants to defund the Seattle Police Department, build 2,500 “tiny houses” for people experiencing homelessness, and institute rent control, is currently in second place in the mayoral fundraising race, after a $129,050 contribution drop last week brought the campaign’s total fundraising to $266,758, according to the state Public Disclosure Commission. The vast majority of that—$214,050, according to the city—came in the form of democracy vouchers, a form of public campaign finance in which voters receive $100 to spend on the candidate or candidates of their choice.

Financial momentum like that is unusual for a little-known candidate without connections to the city’s political establishment; it’s also exactly what the democracy voucher program was designed to promote. PubliCola asked Houston why he thought so many people were giving to his campaign. Houston told us he credits his consultant, Prism West, and a strategic plan that places the campaign on track to max out its primary-election vouchers by the end of this week. Under the city’s election law, mayoral candidates can redeem a total of $800,000 in democracy vouchers—half in the primary, half in the general.

Houston said he wasn’t surprised by the haul. “I knew it was going to happen at some point,” he said. “I am someone who is focused on not just hiring the best people, but also really being committed to understanding how we meet our goals.”

That strategy, Houston continued, has included a lot of (masked, socially distant) in-person canvassing, with a focus on several key issues. Police defunding, for example, is a polarizing issue but one that Houston says galvanizes people to give. “Being very clear about defunding the police to invest in community really resonates with people—either you’re for it or against it, and people who are in the affirmative [tend to give],” he said.

According to the PDC, Chief Seattle Club director Colleen Echohawk is the only mayoral candidate who has raised more than Houston; her latest total, according to the PDC, is $297,072.

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If you’re reading this, we know you’re someone who appreciates deeply sourced breaking news, features, and analysis—along with guest columns from local opinion leaders, ongoing coverage of the kind of stories that get short shrift in mainstream media, and informed, incisive opinion writing about issues that matter.

We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

3. Senators passed the the state’s first-ever capital gains tax (SB 5096) on Sunday, the last day of the session, after rejecting the bill the previous Thursday. The bill would impose a 7 percent tax on capital gains above $250,000, subject to some exemptions, raising more than $400 million in its first year. The bill passed on the same narrow margin as the initial vote in March, 25-24.

Before the state can begin collecting the tax, it will have to face a near-certain legal challenge from business groups. (Republicans have said they will not file the lawsuit themselves but expect an outside organization to do so._ While Republicans want the tax stopped, they fear that if the state supreme court rules that the capital gains tax is constitutional, it will open the door for a state income tax.