CAMP MURRAY, Pierce County – Standing in front of a wall-sized American flag and stacks of masks and other medical supplies, Vice President Mike Pence said Thursday Washington had the full support of the federal government as it battles an outbreak of the novel coronavirus.
Pence’s visit Thursday to Washington came as public health officials scrambled to limit the spread of the worst outbreak of COVID-19 in the United States, as the number of confirmed cases and fatalities continued to climb.
“We’re with you, we’re here to help, and we’re going to stay with you every step of the way,” Pence said in a news briefing at Camp Murray, “until the state of Washington and America sees our way through the coronavirus.”
The vice president arrived amid continuing criticism by some Washington lawmakers about the federal government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak. U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, on Thursday sent Pence a sharply worded letter about the federal government’s deployment and communications regarding coronavirus tests.
Flanked by Gov. Jay Inslee and nine of Washington’s 10 members of Congress, Pence said the federal government is working to make sure the state has the testing kits it needs.
“While we’re meeting the demand of the cases we know about today, we still have a ways to go to ensure that tests are available for any future cases and also for people across your state and across the country,” Pence said.
The U.S. death toll from the coronavirus climbed to 12 on Thursday afternoon, with all but one of the victims in Washington state, the other in California. The number of infections swelled to over 200, scattered across 18 states.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has prioritized the delivery of federal test kits to Washington and California, Pence added.
The news conference followed a meeting Thursday afternoon where Pence — who is leading the federal government’s coronavirus response — toured the state’s emergency operations facility and met with Inslee and Washington’s members of Congress.
In a portion of that meeting that was open to news organizations, Pence thanked Inslee, state health officials, the city of Seattle and others for their work responding to the outbreak.
“The president wanted me to be here today to make it crystal clear that we’re with you,” Pence, who sat next to Inslee, told those gathered.
Pence also praised what he called “swift and bipartisan” efforts of U.S. Congress to approve a federal funding bill for the coronavirus response.
The roundtable also included Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier and Metropolitan King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn.
In a statement Thursday evening, Durkan said that Pence “assured us they would help scale testing quickly, provide more personal protection and support our first responders.”
Public offices keeping busy
Across the Puget Sound region Thursday, governments and communities raced to try and stay ahead of developments. Some schools closed out of precaution. Businesses were canceling travel and King County officials urged people to work from home.
Earlier in the day, Inslee and state Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler announced several steps intended to reduce costs for people who need to be tested for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
Kreidler issued an emergency order directing health insurance carriers with state-regulated plans, through May 4, to provide health care provider visits and novel coronavirus testing without co-payments and deductible payments to enrollees and who meet criteria for testing.
The order will apply to individual market plans, as well as small- and large-group employer plans, which cover about 1.2 million people, but not to self-funded employer plans, Medicaid and Medicare, which are regulated by the federal government, Kreidler’s office said.
Inslee said Thursday that the state will help pay for coronavirus tests for people without health insurance. He didn’t immediately share details about how that could work.
“I am announcing that we have the authority and intention to cover those costs by the state of Washington,” Inslee said. There is still a limited supply of testing kits, he said, so people should consult with their doctor about whether a test is necessary.
And King County Executive Dow Constantine announced he would request emergency funding of more than $27 million to help with the response.
The funds, Constantine said, would include $6.1 million to address added costs taken on by Public Health – Seattle & King County; $19.5 million to buy and operate new quarantine facilities; $1.6 million for the Human Services Department to prepare existing homeless shelters to handle the outbreak; and $150,000 for outreach.
The request was sent to the Metropolitan King County Council on Thursday afternoon, Constantine’s office said, and the council is expected to take it up at their regular meeting Tuesday.
About $15 million will go to fund previously announced quarantine facilities — a motel the county has purchased in Kent and modular facilities in North Seattle, Interbay and the Top Hat neighborhood in White Center. An additional $4.5 million will be needed to operate those facilities.
In Seattle, Durkan acquired broad new powers as the City Council approved an emergency declaration designed to help address the novel coronavirus outbreak.
Under the temporary emergency proclamation, the mayor will be able to bypass regulations and steps usually required for spending, contracting, borrowing and temporary hiring. She’ll also be able to open facilities without the permits and reviews usually required.
Before the council’s vote, Durkan announced she would use her emergency powers in the coming weeks to add capacity to shelter up to 100 more homeless people at three sites.
The council made some minor changes to the mayor’s Tuesday proclamation and issued several requests in an accompanying resolution in order to highlight certain priorities.
The council’s resolution asks Durkan to spend emergency money on hand-washing stations, hygiene services such as mobile bathrooms for homeless people, programs that help low-income people access coronavirus testing and programs that update non-English speakers about the outbreak.
It also asks Durkan to let city employees and contractors work from home as much as practical. Seattle’s human-resources director emailed the city’s employees Thursday encouraging them to telecommute.
Partisanship takes a break
The medical masks on display at Camp Murray — which is home to the State Emergency Operations Center — were part of a shipment from the Strategic National Stockpile.
The shipment to the state Department of Health for workers responding to the virus is set to include: N95 masks, surgical masks, eye protection shields and disposable medical gowns.
In her letter Thursday, Murray described herself as “extremely frustrated” about the federal government’s rollout of coronavirus tests, including messaging about “when, where and to whom the tests will be available.”
“The administration has failed several times to take steps that could expedite the COVID-19 response, resulting in slower deployment of tests to people in need,” Murray wrote.
Murray requested from Pence answers on a range of questions, including estimates for how many tests the federal government plans to deploy in the coming weeks.
At the news briefing, Inslee was asked about his Tweet after an initial phone call in which the governor said he told Pence that “our work would be more successful if the Trump administration stuck to the science and told the truth.”
Inslee said he’s had “more than enough very robust disagreements with the current president.”
“But I want to focus today on the work we need to do in the partnership,” Inslee said. “And I can tell you that I think that this is a good partnership moving forward.
“And I am please with the results of our collaboration today,” Inslee added.
Others also left Thursday’s meeting with Pence feeling upbeat.
U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Everett, said the roundtable with the vice president was an indication that “we’re all coming together to try to sit down on this.”
Larsen added that the swift passage of a federal funding bill to boost response to the virus, which is expected to be signed by President Donald Trump, is a “strong indication that there’s no politics involved in here.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.