Seattle mayor warns protective gear running low

Seattle mayor warns protective gear running low
© Getty

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan (D) says first responders and medical facilities at the heart of America’s coronavirus outbreak will run out of desperately needed protective gear if they do not receive new supplies from a national stockpile in the coming days and weeks.

In an exclusive interview, Durkan told The Hill that current estimates suggest there are more than 1,100 people in the greater Seattle area who are infected with the coronavirus, many of whom show few symptoms and therefore have not sought medical attention.

“It is perhaps the most consequential and complicated event that I’ve ever been involved in,” she said.


There have been 373 confirmed cases in Washington state, the highest total of any state in the country, and the majority of those cases are in the Seattle area.

Those who become sick enough to need hospitalization are already stretching health systems as city, county and state officials scramble to build capacity. Many people who become ill call 911, putting a premium on personal protective gear that police and fire fighters must don each time they come into contact with someone who might be symptomatic.

“There’s some critical things that we will need very quickly. We have made it clear on what those are. Testing still remains the number one issue. Capacity has increased, but it has not increased to meet the demand or the need,” Durkan told The Hill. “The national stockpile of personal protective equipment, face masks, face shields, gloves — we will run out if we don’t get replenishments soon.”

Durkan said she is content with the response from state and federal officials as well as with Vice President Pence, who visited the Seattle area last week. Durkan’s office went through Pence to resolve a problem the city faced early on in the outbreak, she said.

But early stumbles by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have made testing for the COVID-19 illness more difficult, delaying the necessary action that has undoubtedly made the outbreak worse and cost lives.


“The thing that has hamstrung us the most and still we are continuing to catch up because of the lack of testing,” Durkan said. “It’s been very difficult to know how much mitigation and government regulation there has to be because we didn’t know what the scope of the problem was.”

“No one has made any secret that at the beginning of this there were some real stumbles at the CDC. But the line-to-line communication between the city and CDC is working really well,” she added.

Seattle health officials expected the coronavirus, which began circulating late last year in Wuhan, China, to eventually make its way to the United States and to the Seattle area. They began preparations in January, holding Cabinet-level exercises to plan the city’s response — just as a 30-something man from Snohomish County, just north of Seattle, boarded a flight from Wuhan back home, bringing with him the first known American case of the virus.

Genetic sequencing of that man’s case and other cases that emerged five weeks later showed DNA similar enough to suggest to researchers that the virus had been spreading, undetected, for weeks.

“It came upon us much more quickly than anyone anticipated,” Durkan said.

Durkan stood alongside Gov. Jay InsleeJay Robert InsleeWashington state to provide free menstrual hygiene products in school bathrooms Cuomo signs legislation restoring voting rights to felons upon release from prison Colorado legislature passes bill to allow human composting MORE (D) on Wednesday as Inslee announced restrictions on all gatherings of more than 250 people in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties, the three Washington counties hit hardest by the virus. Later on Wednesday, Seattle’s public school district said it would close schools for two weeks. The system was still figuring out details for how some of its 52,000 students would be cared for, especially those who depend on it for free and reduced-price lunches.

The number of cases in Washington state have doubled every six or seven days for the past several weeks, Durkan said. In a worst-case scenario, the Seattle area could be overrun by 70,000 cases in six weeks.

“When you hear those numbers and look at those models, it makes it pretty easy to make the decision to take some pretty significant steps,” she said.

The virus has already caused a slowdown in Seattle’s economy, a pullback that is likely to fall disproportionately on low-income workers and small businesses that depend on foot traffic. Many major organizations, including Amazon, Microsoft and the University of Washington, have ordered workers to work from home, depriving coffee shops, barber shops and restaurants of the customers they would otherwise serve.

To help those businesses, Durkan’s administration is allowing those impacted by the virus to delay business and operating taxes. It has increased funding to a small business stabilization fund, and Durkan appointed former Commerce Secretary and Washington Gov. Gary Locke (D) to head a small business recovery task force.

“Our small businesses, our employees, minimum-wage workers, low wage workers, gig economy workers, those are the most vulnerable part” of Seattle’s economy, Durkan said. “Small businesses provide about 200,000 jobs in Seattle. The biggest part of our economic sector in terms of jobs. That’s like four Amazons.”

Durkan has also ordered city utilities to stop cutting off services to residents who have fallen behind on their bills. Power, water and garbage services will continue to those mostly low-income residents who have past due bills as the crisis continues.

“The last thing we want is for people to be displaced from their homes or to suddenly have their power and lights are shut off,” she said.

Durkan said parts of the city, especially around Amazon’s headquarters in South Lake Union, look empty but that people are going about their daily routines in other neighborhoods. She said a few days of unseasonably good weather has created “a little bit of cognitive dissonance.”

“There’s not much sleep these days and there’s a lot on our plate,” Durkan said. “People are working around the clock and they’re tired, but they’re not daunted. We know that we’re in this for the long haul, and those of us who have been working on this closely have come to the realization a while ago how significant it is.”