Disaster in Whatcom County

UN-PREPARED / Torn Paper Concept (Click for more)

COVID-19 pandemic highlights difficulty in preparing for the unknown

Marty Stauffer is the owner of Lynden-based insurance brokerage Stauffer Insurance. When Business Pulse knocked on his glass door in the middle of March, it was locked.

“I’m practicing social distancing,” Stauffer said, opening the door and offering hand sanitizer and a chair about six feet from where he’d be sitting.

He had good reason to be cautious. The novel coronavirus, which first infected humans in Wuhan, the capital city of China’s Hubei province, in December 2019, was proving much more infectious than previous coronaviruses, including the one that caused SARS. It had effectively crippled entire countries at that point. In the United States, some of the earliest known cases of COVID-19 were in Washington state, where the virus struck most dramatically at a Kirkland-area nursing home. Well over 100 cases were confirmed connected to the Life Care Center, with at least 35 dead, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The state government had tried to slow the virus’s spread first with warnings and partial limitations and then with the mandated closure of bars and restaurants to in-person dining and drinking, the closure of entertainment and recreational facilities, and sharp limits on large gatherings. Whatcom County followed with even more mandated closures, including the closure of salons and tattoo parlors. With the exception of supply stores, which were getting mobbed, retail stores that managed to stay open were struggling to scratch up business. As time went on, additional measures were announced, including the extension of school closures throughout the state through the end of the 2019-2020 school year.

The basic message from government, medical professionals and many business leaders was straightforward, though hard to follow to the letter for many: Stay home unless absolutely necessary. This meant a total shutdown for a large chunk of the economy and, for others, a rethinking of how to conduct business. Later closures of all nonessential businesses as part of Gov. Jay Inslee’s March 23 “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order took matters a step further.

Most people who contract COVID-19 live through it. Though numbers are difficult to pin down, experts estimate that 1 in 100 people who get this strain of coronavirus worldwide die from it, as opposed to 1 in 1,000 for the flu.

The economic damage is more widespread.

By mid-March, when Stauffer unlocked his door for Business Pulse, the pandemic had already sickened and killed thousands, disrupted supply chains, led to the hoarding of basic goods, shaken consumer confidence to the core, lowered the U.S. economy from close to full employment to what were assumed to be Depression-era employment numbers (though Congressional action would forestall this), slowed traffic from Canada to a trickle, tanked world stock markets, shuttered all public and private schools in Whatcom County, and made way for some of the most far-reaching government orders since World War II.

What has been Whatcom County’s response to this crisis?
“Whatcom County has had pandemic plans in place since 2001,” said John Gargett, deputy director of the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office Division of Emergency Management. “Two events where they were used was in the H1N1 outbreak and the SARS outbreak. The same plan was used for the potential Ebola outbreak. It has been this pre-planning that has enabled us to be as prepared as we are — which, compared to many other communities in Washington state, has put us in a relatively good position.”

A big part of that plan is something called Whatcom Unified Command, which is, in effect, a temporary drawing together of all of Whatcom’s agencies and governments (including tribal governments) to enable better communication and faster reactions to unfolding crises. Structures like this are recommended by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help communities cope with such large-scale emergencies as floods, active shooters, earthquakes and pandemics.

“This new global disease outbreak is beyond the scope of any single department to mitigate,” reads a statement on Whatcom Unified Command’s website at whatcomcovid.com, “and we must all come together to protect our community from this dynamic threat.”

Whatcom County is doing just that, said County Executive Satpal Sidhu, who declared a county public health emergency on March 10.

“We are now under unified command and control org structure,” he said. “We have a joint information center for public information and regular updates on all situations and events. We are following well-established process and procedures of FEMA and Washington state emergency operations to coordinate response to COVID-19.”

On April 6, Whatcom Unified Command announced that the county had reached an agreement with the owners of the Motel 6 off Samish Way in Bellingham to use it as a quarantine and isolation facility. The building, which is for sale, has been vacant.

“Every action we are taking together is intended to limit the spread of COVID-19,” said Bellingham Mayor Seth Fleetwood in a press release. “This is a time-critical need. The availability of this facility — for anyone who needs it — is essential to our response to this crisis.”

Whatcom Unified Command plans to establish similar quarantine facilities throughout the county, as necessary, as part of its ongoing efforts to manage and mitigate the COVID-19 crisis.

Overall, it’s going well so far, said Sumas Mayor Kyle Christensen, a part of Whatcom Unified Command.

“We have good communication and we have regular meetings,” he said. “The county’s doing a good job communicating with the cities.”

Christensen rated his personal anxiety level in the middle of March at about a 6 out of 10.
“I know that a lot of it is preventative measures,” he said. “And I think we’ve done a good job of communicating that to people in the community.”

Nowhere has the COVID-19 crisis been felt more strongly than in healthcare. As news from around the country and world is making clear, insufficient medical infrastructure — on the pandemic-fighting scale, anyway — is a problem. Many locales do not have enough staff, respirators, personal protective equipment, beds or supplies to handle the huge number of infected people COVID-19 is expected to send to them (or is sending them already).

Worse, given that this coronavirus is extremely hard to control, medical facilities themselves can see increased numbers of infections. On March 22, Whatcom County announced 32 confirmed cases of COVID-19 associated with Shuksan Healthcare Center, a facility that emphasizes short-term stays to help people recuperate after hospitalization. Those cases brought the total infected in the county to roughly 50 at that time; it has since grown to about 300 as of press time.

PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center is the county’s only hospital. In normal times, hospitals in the Seattle area can supplement local need, but during a widespread pandemic such as this one, they don’t necessarily have extra beds. And in the event of an outbreak at St. Joseph, Whatcom County would have to get really creative — and quickly. Some locales, such as Seattle and New York City, have created field hospitals to quickly grow the number of beds available for treating people.

Whatcom County, however, has so far has been spared a worse crisis. In fact, it has been PeaceHealth that has been supplementing need, supporting Shuksan Healthcare Center with additional workers, including registered nurses, nursing assistants and licensed practicing nurses. These nurses and assistants volunteered to work full time at Shuksan to help meet the need there. On March 23, PeaceHealth also began providing daily meal service for Shuksan, with Whatcom Transportation Authority pitching in to deliver the meals to that facility from PeaceHealth’s kitchens. Whatcom Unified Command also was working to organize cleaning support at Shuksan.

Gargett, Sidhu and Christensen all praised the ease of communication that Whatcom Unified Command facilitates. As new information is shared, county leaders are adjusting plans. For example, Christenson said, Sumas has made staffing changes and adjusted procedures.

“We’re not doing passports where you have to do direct contact and fingerprinting,” he said. “We don’t want to break that six-foot barrier.” And that’s not all. All city governments in the county have stopped doing all but the most essential things.

There are also larger responses that Whatcom Unified Command helps make happen. For example, in the middle of March, Whatcom County received $905,821 from the Washington State Department of Commerce to use for emergency housing. This money was earmarked to create isolation and quarantine housing, create more homeless shelter capacity to accommodate social distancing, and beef up sanitation for existing housing for the homeless. Some of these funds were used to relocate the Lighthouse Mission’s Drop-In Center to the Bellingham High School building.

Whatcom Unified Command’s Border Task Force is addressing issues arising from the closure of the border with Canada to all but essential traffic, and the Economic Impact Task Force has been marshaled to support local business needs. Whatcom Unified Command also is coordinating donations from local businesses, including BP Cherry Point refinery and Petrogas. The BP Cherry Point refinery in Ferndale donated $60,000 for software and training to help launch Whatcom Unified Command in March, and then in April it donated another $25,000 in essential resources, including much-needed personal protective equipment. That equipment included more than 3,000 Tyvek suits, 300 lab coats, 5,700 gloves, 1,500 booties and, in partnership with Northwest Solutions, 100 gallons of hand sanitizer.

“This is an ongoing and essential need for our community,” said Pam Brady, director of external affairs at BP Cherry Point refinery, in a press release. “We are glad that we could share these resources with the community.”

BP wasn’t alone. The Petrogas Ferndale Terminal has donated more than 1,000 suits of personal protective equipment and 12,000 gloves to Whatcom Unified Command for use by healthcare workers on the front lines, and it has pledged to donate more. And Axon, a company that provides protection for law enforcement, has donated gloves for use by first responders.

“There have also been several generous, anonymous donors,” said Wally Kost, a Whatcom Unified Command branch manager responsible for securing and distributing essential supplies, in a press release. “It is so heartening to see our community stepping up to the plate in this time of need.”