Lewis County officials grilled a state health official Tuesday over the state-run COVID-19 quarantine and isolation facility, situated in a Centralia inn.
News of the facility growing from four to 23 patients did nothing to soothe the situation.
With county commissioners pushing for the state Department of Health (DOH) to relocate, the agency’s Nathan Weed said a more permanent location could be identified by the end of July.
“I think the sooner you guys remove it, the better we are,” Commissioner Sean Swope said.
Although the Lakeview Inn’s owner willingly leased out the facility, its opening sparked outrage among county and city officials, who were later backed up by U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler. The facility was previously housed in a Thurston County summer camp, where DOH officials say they didn’t face this level of local pushback.
On Tuesday, commissioners repeated their frustration that DOH officials aren’t communicating enough with local public health authorities, saying they were unaware so many patients were being housed in the 40-unit motel.
“This has reached a new elevation, a new level,” Commissioner Gary Stamper said. “We want to make sure that you’re communicating with our health department … you’re involved with a large state agency. I’d think that you could figure that out.”
Weed, DOH’s acting assistant secretary for preparedness and response, repeated apologies DOH has offered to local officials, and agreed to ramp up communications with people like Public Health Director JP Anderson.
“Clearly we need to be stepping up our game and doing a better job to make sure you have whatever information you need to be successful,” Weed said.
Even so, commissioners want the facility gone. The sentiment was clear Tuesday, when commissioners brought Lewis County Prosecutor Jonathan Meyer to speak. Meyer took the opportunity to question Weed on what authority the state has to open the facility in an existing public health jurisdiction, and why officials chose Lewis County, which has an already-strained health care system.
According to Weed, the facility hosts the small percentage of people who exceed local health jurisdictions’ capabilities, or who arrive in Washington and are not under any one county’s jurisdiction. Most of the time, Weed said, those individuals exposed to COVID-19 can find their own place to quarantine. Washington’s state of emergency, he said, allows the state health department to step in.
“Lewis County isn’t doing anything wrong, or not fulfilling their obligation,” he said.
He also tried to quell fears that the site could spread the disease locally, citing 24/7 security, the voluntary nature of the facility, and the success the state has had in the more than a year of operating such facilities. Policies in place mean community transmission is “not even possible,” he said.
When pushed on why Lewis County was chosen for the state’s sole isolation and quarantine facility, Weed said one factor was finding a facility close to where DOH staffers live.
“I’ll just be honest. Part of our challenge is that DOH is located in Tumwater, Washington, just up the road from you all. And that’s where much of our staff lives, and they have families, they have lives,” he said.
It wasn’t a satisfying answer to Commissioner Lindsey Pollock, who pointed to the many Lewis County residents commuting to Seattle or Portland for work.
“So when you state that you want it close to Tumwater, that’s not really an acceptable excuse to us,” she said.
Pollock also lamented the fact that patients are being transported from other counties — including Whatcom County, where Weed said some current patients arrived via a shipping vessel — that have more robust health care systems.
“I find it very very difficult to believe you couldn’t find a hotel room between Whatcom County and King County, or even Skagit County,” she said. “All of those counties have more physicians.”