A person awaiting COVID-19 test results unexpectedly left an emergency quarantine facility at a Kent motel on Friday morning, releasing a wave of anger and worry from officials within the south King County city who protested the siting of the facility.

By Friday evening, the person’s test results had come back negative, but not before raising questions about how the county planned to address staffing and security at quarantine facilities as more people become sick.

The person had been experiencing homelessness and was placed at the motel Thursday night.

The incident underscored what will be a staggering challenge ahead of public officials as the virus continues to spread: how to quarantine “hundreds or thousands” of people who become sick in coming months and aren’t able to stay in their own homes, or don’t have homes in which to stay.

The future that county human services staffers now face is similar to what’s been happening to the health care system, said King County Department of Community and Human Services director Leo Flor during an interview with reporters Friday afternoon, hours after the patient had left the motel. They are also grappling with a staff shortage amid mounting demand.

The man was the second to stay at the facility this week, according to Flor.

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The patient’s departure was met with anger from Kent city officials, who had fought the county’s decision to locate the quarantine site in their community.

“The things we predicted have happened,” said Kent Mayor Dana Ralph at a news conference Friday morning. “I’m angry, I’m frustrated and I feel like our entire city, through this process, continues to be disrespected.”

Later, the city of Kent posted on its Facebook page that the patient had tested negative. “We are both happy and relieved,” the post read. “However, the situation our community faced earlier reinforces our need to hear a plan from the county to guarantee the safety and security of the Kent community including the patients they house at the quarantine facility.”

The patient left the facility, which was staffed by a King County site manager and two private security guards, a little before 8 a.m. Friday and walked into a nearby 7-Eleven. He was followed by a security guard, who was filming him, according to Amit, the store manager. The patient allegedly then took two baked items from the 7-Eleven and tried to pay for milk before boarding a 153 King County Metro bus, which was later taken out of circulation and cleaned, officials said. Amit said the security guard took photos of the bus the man boarded.

The 7-Eleven remained open as of late Friday morning, when the test results were still unknown. Amit said no one from the government had contacted him. His boss reported the incident, but did not tell Amit to go home.

A person awaiting COVID-19 test results left an emergency quarantine facility at a Kent motel on Friday. The city had previously attempted to block King County’s use of the motel as a quarantine shelter in court. (Ellen Banner / The Seattle Times)

King County Executive Dow Constantine announced the purchase of the Kent EconoLodge and the deployment of modular units last week in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. The units were intended to isolate or quarantine symptomatic people who might not have a home address or who are unable to stay at home.

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Now the county is changing its qualifications for who is allowed to stay at the facilities. People allowed to be housed in the Kent and White Center facilities will be restricted to those who are “able to quarantine or isolate without the need of social services or additional supports,” according to the county.

And county officials expect far more people in those facilities in the coming weeks. At the Friday afternoon news conference, Flor said the county was trying to set up more units because “hundreds or thousands of people” would not be able to isolate or quarantine in their own homes. DCHS, Flor said, did not have the ability to compel someone to stay in a facility, though he said that fencing had begun at the site and that the county was discussing staffing changes.

The big issue, Flor said, is a shortage of available staff.

“It’s an analogue to the same problem that we know that the medical system is having right now,” Flor said. “What we see very clearly right now is that we need more staff and we are seeking staff from additional regions outside of our own to come in and supplement our system.”

Similar staffing concerns are already beginning to be felt among homeless service providers around the county, though many organization officials said their staffs were dedicated to providing consistent care and support for their homeless clients. Some employees are staying home because they feel sick, while others have children who will no longer be in school after Gov. Jay Inslee ordered countywide, and then statewide, school closures this week.

Flor additionally stressed that the stay at the quarantine site had been voluntary.

“How many positive cases do we have in Washington or King County right now? Hundreds,” Flor said. “We don’t know where all of those people are. In fact, if a person has a home of their own, they go back to their home and nobody hears about it. We don’t know where they are. They isolate and quarantine in place.”

“We are not legally compelling them to stay in any one place,” Flor continued. “If they choose not to do that, that is an individual decision that people can make.”

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Both the purchase of the motel and the placement of some the modular units in White Center spurred protest. The city of Kent attempted to block the county’s use of the motel as an emergency quarantine shelter in court, but was twice overruled by a court commissioner within the last week.

Instead, Commissioner Mark Hillman agreed with the county that state law allows the local public health officer — in this case, Dr. Jeff Duchin of Public Health – Seattle & King County — to take extraordinary measures under a declared public health emergency for coronavirus that trumps local processes and ordinances.

Mayor Ralph and Police Chief Rafael Padilla, who said they were left out of the information loop by county officials about the incident, vented their anger at a hastily-called news conference Friday at Kent City Hall.

Ralph said she learned a man who was awaiting COVID-19 test results left the motel-turned-quarantine-facility from a business owner around 8:30 a.m., roughly an hour after it happened. When she called King County Executive Dow Constantine, she said he was heading into a meeting to discuss the man’s departure.

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Ralph said the city has repeatedly asked for the county’s security plan, which it has not received, and for fencing to be installed. She said she has learned more about the facility from the media than from county officials.

“That’s not OK,” said Ralph. “We still have a long list of questions that haven’t been answered.”

Padilla said no one called 911 and his department didn’t receive any information from public health officials.

“There’s no provision under the law to hold someone at the facility,” Padilla said.

Padilla described the motel as so rundown and unsanitary that his police officers did not run operations or prostitution stings there when it was still in business, even though it was a known site of criminal activity.

“It’s not a suitable place for most people,” said the chief. “The conditions are not great.”

King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn, who represents the southeastern portion of King County, said in a statement he was “given assurances that these quarantine facilities would be secured.”

The county fears COVID-19 could ultimately infect more than 1,000 people experiencing homelessness in the area.

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