Moments after President Trump declared a national emergency to help combat the spread of the novel coronavirus, Gov. Jay Inslee said Washington residents grappling with the pandemic should benefit from the federal action.
At a White House news conference, Trump said the move would open up as much as $50 billion in funding to help state and local governments respond to the coronavirus pandemic, including increased testing. But with the White House providing few details Friday, it was unclear exactly what federal help would be on the way to Washington and how much.
Inslee spoke to Vice President Mike Pence on Thursday and asked him to press Trump on the matter, the governor said at a news conference in Olympia after the president’s announcement.
“I asked [Pence] to urge the president to make such a declaration, and it is hopeful to the state of Washington, because it will make some Medicare and Medicaid benefits [available to people who would otherwise] not be eligible,” Inslee said.
“It helps with public message, as well, to let all Americans know how serious the challenge is,” added the governor, who expanded his own emergency declaration Friday by ordering the closure of all K-12 schools in Washington, banning large events everywhere in the state and halting in-person instruction at colleges and universities.
In a statement, Public Health – Seattle & King County said more aid is necessary. The region needs masks, gloves and other protective gear for vulnerable people, health care workers and first responders, “and we need boots on the ground — strike teams of epidemiologists, nurses and social workers to respond to the growing number of new cases,” the agency said.
“We are pleased the president has finally declared an emergency,” Public Health said. “This is an important step towards acknowledging the reality that we are in and bringing critical funds to the state for response and economic mitigation. We need far more resources than this declaration calls for to expand access to testing, not just in theory but in practice.”
The virus has swept the nation, and the world, with the highest concentration of deaths in the U.S. here in Washington. As of Friday the state announced there have been 568 cases and a total of 37 deaths, with the bulk of the cases in King County. Hundreds of businesses have closed since the outbreak, some temporarily, and companies have urged their employees to work from home.
King County Superior Court jury trials have been suspended until April 24 and jury summonses until April 27. In, Snohomish County, all criminal jury trials have been halted until at least April 24 and all civil jury trials until at least June 1.
King County officials think they’ll need additional isolation and quarantine facilities in the coming months for “hundreds or thousands” of sick people without homes or unable to stay in their homes. A man awaiting test results walked away from a Kent isolation and quarantine facility Friday, raising concerns about staffing and security (his results later turned up negative).
Meanwhile, homeless-services providers say they’re still in the dark about what to do with people who may have COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus. And at a shelter in Bellevue, sick people haven’t been getting tests.
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, who also met with Pence recently and who had called on Trump to declare a national emergency, said the president’s action would help “bring desperately needed resources to our city.” In a news release, Durkan said she would work with Inslee to request funding and said the national emergency would allow her to issue more aggressive measures, including a moratorium on residential evictions.
“We cannot let individuals lose their homes or go hungry at this critical time,” she said.
At the same time, the mayor said she is “deeply concerned” that the president’s declaration doesn’t include “direct financial assistance to individuals,” urging Congress to advance a relief package and push Trump to authorize disaster aid to individuals via the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell expressed support for the national emergency declaration Friday, while U.S. Sen. Patty Murray demanded transparency from a Trump administration that she said has been slow to respond to the crisis. Murray and others in Congress called earlier this week for the president to declare an emergency.
“I’m working to make sure we not only hold the Trump administration accountable for the delays and missed opportunities so far, but that we also do everything in our power to immediately take the steps we need to do to start to finally get ahead of this crisis,” Murray said in remarks before the president’s announcement.
While the national declaration’s precise impact in Washington won’t be known until more details become available, Casey Katims, federal liaison for Inslee’s office, said the federal disaster-relief dollars could help pay for epidemiology work, analysis and equipment. The declaration could provide states with “direct assistance to meet our residents’ needs for health care, shelter, food and cash assistance, and more,” Inslee said before Trump’s announcement.
Seema Verma, administrator of the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), said the declaration would allow her agency to combat the virus by waiving certain regulations.
Washington health care officials have been hoping Trump would declare an emergency in the state, saying that could pave the way for more people to be enrolled in Medicaid quickly. The officials want to use Medicaid to relieve pressure on hospitals by moving more seniors from hospitals into nursing homes, they’ve said.
Though he hailed the national emergency action, Inslee stressed precautions that Washington residents can take on their own to slow the spread of the virus. For example, he said, workers should place chairs between each other during meetings in order to maintain distance. “That strategy could be as important as any presidential declaration,” he said.
Cantwell welcomed Trump’s emergency declaration in a statement. “Those of us from states where COVID-19 is hitting early know that more resources, tools and flexibility are critically needed right now,” she said, referring to the illness causes by the virus.
“This declaration will free up more than $50 billion in federal resources for states and local communities fighting the COVID-19 outbreak on the front lines. It will allow Washington hospitals more flexibility to care for COVID-19 patients and expand critical testing to meet the medical needs as a result of the pandemic,” she added.
Cantwell said she supports a proposal by Democrats in Congress to provide free COVID-19 testing, paid sick leave for people affected by the illness, emergency unemployment insurance for people unable to work due to the outbreak and food-security measures for vulnerable people.
Murray backed the same ideas in her remarks Friday. She also conveyed everyday guidance from public health experts and shared frustration with the Trump administration’s “missteps and slow response to this crisis so far.”
“People need the facts. They need a plan. They need transparency. And they need it now,” she said.
Seattle Times staff reporter Mike Reicher contributed to this story.