CAMP MURRAY, Pierce County – The building constructed to withstand major earthquakes, monitor tsunamis and coordinate armies of wildland firefighters has been overtaken by hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes.
In the State Emergency Operations Center’s cavernous main room, squirt bottles and tubby canisters dot many of the desks. Every other computer screen, however, sits dark. Paper stop signs cover them to make sure emergency responders are social distancing.
The operations center brings together an alphabet soup of federal and state government workers — FEMA, DOH, DOT, State Patrol, National Guard — to coordinate in major crises.
The center is the clearinghouse for governments and health care providers seeking help as they confront the global coronavirus pandemic. It’s also where decisions could be made in the coming days or weeks to deploy National Guard soldiers to help transport supplies or deliver food.
And the 30-odd staffers here Thursday morning were trying to tackle two of Washington’s most urgent, life-or-death problems.
First: How do emergency response officials find and distribute sorely needed medical gowns, gloves, goggles and masks amid a nationwide shortage?
Then: What if the case curve doesn’t bend, if the numbers of infections continue to zoom upward, and seriously ill patients swamp Washington’s hospitals and medical workers?
“I don’t want to say that I’m being a pessimist, but I’m assuming the worst case,” said Robert Ezelle, director of the Washington Military Department’s Emergency Management Division.
“And I think that we have to do that, until we get firm numbers that show us that we’re not” in a worst-case scenario, added Ezelle, 64, one of the officials leading the state’s coronavirus response.
A former U.S. Air Force pilot who came to supervise the nation’s air-defense system over the western United States shortly before Sept. 11, 2001, Ezelle compares this pandemic with those attacks. As of Friday, the state recorded 3,700 cases of coronavirus, resulting in 175 deaths.
Now, in between regular briefing calls with local emergency management officials, Washington’s Congressional delegation and Gov. Jay Inslee’s staff and cabinet, Ezelle and others are working to shore up Washington’s emergency health care response.
A team of workers at the operations center is trying to find bulk shipments of medical gear. But officials face a mind-boggling gap between the requests pouring in and the meager stockpiles.
At one point in mid-March, the operations center had received 543 requests for protective gear but could only fill 54 of those orders, according to Military Department spokeswoman Karina Shagren.
As of Friday, the center has received 1,949 requests from around the state for all kinds of assistance. Along with the gear, those requests include staffing needs and coronavirus test kits, Shagren wrote in an email. Officials have only been able to complete 250 of the orders.
Requests come from all over and are tracked by logistics staffers at one of the operations center’s work stations: COVID-19 test kits for Island County, assistance delivering food for a Vashon senior center, protective gear for the state’s health lab in Shoreline.
Meanwhile, emergency center staffers race to secure limited supplies of medical equipment. The state is starting to get shipments of the 500 ventilators guaranteed by the federal government’s Strategic National Stockpile, Ezelle said in his sparsely decorated office on the operations center’s second floor.
“They’re not necessarily the ones that are appropriate for severely ill COVID patients, but they can provide for the lesser-ill patients,” he said.
The state is also in the process of purchasing potentially as many as 1,000 additional ventilators that can handle those who are severely ill.
“We’ve got word from one vendor that we’re going to be able to get 50 a month,” he said.
Microsoft and Amazon have each loaned executive staff to help. Microsoft is assisting in the search or production of protective medical supplies, he said.
Amazon, Ezelle said, is there to do Amazon things: to “build a rapid-distribution system so that as we get things into the pipeline, we can get it out fast.”
While they have begun releasing numbers on medical supplies coming in, state officials haven’t offered much clarity as to what is coming from the federal stockpiles and what has been acquired by the state.
With COVID-19 cases now in nearly every county, GOP House Minority Leader Rep. J.T. Wilcox, of Yelm, said the state should start to make public more information.
Wilcox said there’s serious concern around the state about the availability of supplies.
“And the best way to avoid spreading panic is transparency,” said Wilcox, adding he doesn’t even know what kind of equipment is available yet. “We’re getting to the point where it would be good to understand more about the supply situation.”
Ezelle and others are also trying to come up with detailed plans for how to coordinate and deploy field hospitals and other newly acquired beds in the coming weeks if the number of seriously ill COVID-19 patients surges.
Since Washington lost out to California in its bid to get the U.S. Navy hospital ship, Ezelle said the state has been promised the equivalent 1,000 beds via military field hospitals.
The first of those is a 148-bed unit with more than 300 staff coming from Fort Carson, Colorado, which Seattle officials said Friday would be deployed at the CenturyLink Field Event Center and could serve non-coronavirus patients soon.
Those are in addition to the 1,000 beds coming from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and other beds that have been purchased, Ezelle said. And the state has requested additional beds from the federal government.
Ezelle said officials are working on detailed written plans to address the myriad logistical questions that come with all those.
They need to figure out where those beds will go, who will staff them. Decisions must be made about where to allocate ventilators. Officials must determine which patients will go to existing hospitals and which will be sent to the field hospitals. Arrangements must be made to transport patients.
In the meantime, the National Guard could be deployed to help with logistics, according to Shagren.
Only a handful of National Guard members have been activated, she said, and none is out working in the communities.
But if state officials need them, Guard members could be called upon to unload and assemble field hospitals, or move medical supplies and people, she said. They could also help with mobile testing sites or traffic control points.
Ezelle said he hopes people are taking social-distancing measures seriously, and that the numbers of people who, in fact, do will prevent a steep rise in seriously ill patients.
If that doesn’t happen, he said, “What keeps me up at night is knowing that we’re going to be dealing with a massive influx of patients.”