Seattle officials have booked an entire downtown hotel for three months to house first responders and other essential city employees who’ve been exposed to the novel coronavirus and can’t isolate or quarantine at home.
The city is set to spend at least $2.8 million on the 155-room Executive Hotel Pacific as more firefighters, police officers and other crucial workers in Seattle and across Washington are contracting the COVID-19 illness caused by the virus.
Only six rooms at the Executive Hotel Pacific were occupied by first responders as of Tuesday, though officials expected that number to grow. Seattle has begun offering rooms to essential transportation and utilities employees and also may coordinate with other cities to house their first responders. Independent journalist Erica Barnett first reported the hotel contract.
Six Seattle Police Department (SPD) employees had tested positive for COVID-19 as of Tuesday, Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office said. All six were isolating and in stable condition. Ten Seattle Fire Department (SFD) firefighters had tested positive, according to Durkan’s office. All 10 were isolating and in stable condition, the office said.
The city declined to share details about the first responders with positive cases, citing health-privacy laws.
As of Tuesday, 86 SFD employees and 167 SPD employees had been quarantined or isolated, and 150 SPD employees had returned to work, the mayor’s office said. Seattle isn’t tracking cases among emergency medical technicians with American Medical Response, a private company that contracts with Seattle for ambulance services, the office said.
Statewide, at least 43 firefighters from 25 departments have tested positive, according to data from the Washington State Council of Fire Fighters (WSCFF) union. At least 642 other firefighters have gone into isolation or quarantine after being exposed to the virus or showing symptoms consistent with COVID-19, WSCFF said. Among those, 458 have returned to work while 184 remain out of service, according to the union.
“We’re still seeing members getting exposed,” said Dennis Lawson, a battalion chief for Central Pierce Fire & Rescue and president of WSCFF. “I’ve been on the job for 33 yeas and I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Seattle officials began looking for hotel rooms shortly after Durkan declared a coronavirus emergency on March 3, with the city’s Finance and Administrative Services (FAS) using “an informal hotel solicitation process,” spokeswoman Melissa Mixon said in an email. “It’s important that our brothers and sisters on the front lines know their colleagues are being taken care of and … know the city has their back,” she said.
“New York and Washington state were potentially on similar trajectories for the spread of the virus,” Durkan spokeswoman Kelsey Nyland said, noting more than 1,000 New York City first responders have tested positive.
FAS contacted 25 area motels and hotels by March 15, using criteria that included private rooms with bathrooms, food service capabilities, appropriate HVAC systems and competitive pricing, Nyland added. Three hotels were initially willing to partner, Nyland said.
“Given the stigma around COVID-19 when the outbreak was still unfolding, not very many hotels were interested,” Mixon said.
The Executive Hotel Pacific submitted a proposal on March 18 and was selected by FAS. Its HVAC system has “individual fan coils in each room” and each room has a window that opens, Nyland said.
“We had an immediate need and they stepped up,” Mixon said about the Executive Hotel Pacific. “In recent weeks, other hotels have stepped up to offer support. We commend them and we commend the ownership and staff at Executive Hotel Pacific for stepping up first, when the need was most urgent.”
The hotel became available to the city on March 23 and the contract covers 90 days, including laundry service and three meals a day at $45 a room, plus an extra charge to cover the hotel’s transition back to regular operations.
Seattle is paying $111 to $190 a night for the rooms, with the rates based on Executive Hotel Pacific’s total revenues during the same period last year, Mixon said. The cost is set to be at least $2.8 million and could surpass $3 million, depending on how many meals are needed, according to a breakdown provided by FAS. The city intends to seek Federal Emergency Management Agency reimbursement.
During the week that ended March 21, only 8% of downtown hotel rooms were occupied and 19 hotels were temporarily closed, according to the Downtown Seattle Association. City Council members have suggested Seattle may want to obtain hotel rooms during the coronavirus crisis for people experiencing homelessness.
The Executive Hotel Pacific is distributing personal protective equipment to housekeepers and is requiring the housekeepers to wear it, Durkan’s office said. The hotel also is accommodating guests with confirmed cases on separate floors from guests without confirmed cases, the office said. Meal deliveries are being coordinated to prevent direct interaction.
Seattle’s 10 COVID-19 cases are the most among Washington fire departments, and 41 of the city’s firefighters are currently in isolation or quarantine, while 45 others have returned to work, according to WSCFF.
But Marysville Fire District has arguably been hit harder. Five firefighters in the much smaller department have tested positive; one has recovered and returned to work, while four are recovering at home, said Christie Veley, a spokeswoman. At the same time, 29 Marysville firefighters, representing nearly 25% percent of the entire department, have spent time in quarantine or isolation, according to WSCFF data.
Dean Shelton, president of Marysville’s firefighters union, said the virus has “changed everything” about the job, even as they continue to go on all the same types of calls they went on before the virus.
“We can see fires and we can see smoke, we can’t see COVID-19,” Shelton said. “We have to make sure we’re careful and strategic about how we address these circumstances.”
The coronavirus crisis has wreaked more havoc in the Puget Sound region than elsewhere, but firefighters across the state have been infected, with departments in Pullman, Wenatchee, Centralia and Vancouver all reporting positive tests.
As the outbreak has spread, firefighters have adopted tighter measures to protect themselves and those they serve, Veley said.
Visitors have been banned from fire stations, and departments are decontaminating ambulances after every call. Fire stations have changed their layouts, so firefighters no longer eat and congregate together. When they go on medical calls, they initially send a “scout” to meet the patient. The scout — wearing a gown, goggles, mask and gloves — assesses whether the other firefighters on the call are truly needed, so they don’t unnecessarily burn through their precious supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE).
“Throughout this outbreak we have been constantly reevaluating our procedures and increasing the level of protection to firefighters,” Veley said. “What we think we’re seeing is, as we have increased our PPE procedures, we’re seeing less of them having to go on quarantine.”