Protecting the Vulnerable
Wednesday, March 18, 2020
PROTECTING THE VULNERABLE: In a special session this week, Whatcom County Council met in their capacity as the County Board of Heath to hear an update on the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) from county health officials. The meeting was held through teleconference, to help limit public exposure to an illness vector that has risen to more than 900 cases statewide, with nearly 50 deaths centering on Seattle. By Tuesday of this week, the number of identified cases in Whatcom County had grown to five.
“With this rapidly evolving situation comes rapidly evolving information and guidance,” County Health Officer Greg Stern noted in a memo to Council. “As we collectively learn more about the virus and how it spreads, our federal and state guidance continues to be modified, resulting in frequently changing directives to our own local heath care partners, as well as revising and updating our recommendations to local stakeholders such as schools, businesses, community groups, and many others.”
Staff sketched a number of initiatives underway since Whatcom County Executive Satpal Sidhu issued a proclamation of emergency on March 10. The initiatives are intended to create a unified command structure for public response in the event of emergency. Bellingham and Ferndale quickly followed suit with their own declarations of emergency that allow local governments a more nimble response to a growing crisis.
County Council decisions continue to split along 4-3 lines, but only around matters that are trivial in nature—indicating the true understanding of the crisis has not yet moved beyond partisan camps. It will—and soon.
The governor’s office continues to take the lead a vacuum of federal leadership on the mounting pandemic, moving to close public schools last week followed by an order to close the greater portion of the food and beverage service industry—throwing the local economy into a tailspin. All but the most essential municipal services have ground to a halt.
These are frightening times, as the crisis seems to mount by the hour.
A good portion of staff information and Council discussion focused on the county’s most vulnerable populations—the chronically unhoused, and those in custody who can’t benefit from social distancing measures. Yet considerable uncertainty remains about the much larger population of families plunged into financial despair through job or business loss through a prolonged shutdown that could last several months.
“We’ve been working on reducing the jail population from the time we first became aware this was going to be a serious concern for our community,” Whatcom County Sherif Bill Elfo reported. “We need to continue to lower the population,” Elfo said, detailing measures like booking restrictions and working with local law enforcement and prosecutors to handle low-level, non-violent misdemeanors outside of incarceration when there is discretion to do so.
Ann Deacon, the county’s human service manager, announced a $900,000 grant that had been awarded by the U.S. Department of Commerce to help meet the unmet needs of people living unsheltered or in need of quarantine or isolation from COVID-19.
“We’re going to have to be thoughtful in how we focus these resources,” Deacon reported. “We can use this money to create, operate and maintain facilities that we might want to repurpose for this need. We an certainly use it to increase sanitation activities, especially in current shelters or subsidized housing. We can also use it to purchase or construct new, non-permanent housing—all shelter-related activities.
“We can also use this in very broad language to provide housing and other services ‘as long as the expenditures are in good faith, realistically available to people who are unsheltered or living in homeless housing,’” she said.
The City of Bellingham has also brought unique powers to bear, including an extension of leasing options for secure housing on city property. The city has redirected staffing to address the crisis.
In the final hours of their short 60-day session, the Washington State Legislature also managed to bring resources to the global pandemic, passing a supplemental budget with emergency funding for the state’s COVID-19 outbreak. The last bill passed by the House before the Legislature adjourned last week was a measure drawing $200 million from the state’s emergency “rainy day” fund, with $175 million going to the public health system and the remainder to a dedicated unemployment fund for businesses and workers affected by the new coronavirus. Five of those bills specific to COVID-19 were signed into law this week by Inslee.
“The urgency of this is clear, the demand for action is clear and we’ll stretch this as far as we can and we’ll find some way to finance more if we have to,” Gov. Jay Inslee said after the final gavels fell in both chambers.
Tribal governments, too, also rallied, voluntarily agreeing to include their gaming operations in the governor’s general band on businesses where poeple gather in large numbers. The Silver Reef Casino and Resort agreed to suspend operations after casino management met wiith Lummi tribal leaders to expore ways to reduce exposure to the respiratory illness.
The business community, too, has begun to rally ad-hoc strategies to assist small local business that are suffering in shut down.
There’s a saying that a community is only as safe as its most vulnerable members. And in a pandemic crisis, even a diehard capitalist becomes a socialist.