On Sunday, President Donald Trump issued a “major disaster” declaration for Washington state over the novel coronavirus crisis, freeing up some federal assistance — but Gov. Jay Inslee countered that the president’s announcement was not enough to bolster the state’s fight against the pandemic.
“The president’s action makes federal funding available for crisis counseling for affected individuals in all areas in the State of Washington,” President Trump’s declaration said.
On Friday, Inslee asked Trump to declare a major disaster, saying that designation could bring federal aid. As part of that request, he sent the president a 74-page letter detailing exactly what the state would need to fortify its response to the COVID-19 crisis.
Crisis counseling was only one of the requests. Other areas where Inslee sought federal help included: disaster unemployment assistance, disaster legal services, disaster case management, individual and household program assistance, voluntary agency coordination, plus mass care and emergency assistance.
Aside from crisis counseling and mental-health training, Inslee spokesperson Mike Faulk said, the rest of the governor’s requests “remain under review by the White House.”
“We appreciate that the federal government has recognized the severity of the public-health emergency in Washington state,” Gov. Inslee said in a statement.
The president also said the federal government would fund National Guard missions in the hardest-hit states: Washington, California and New York. That means the government will pay much of the costs of calling out the National Guard to help with crisis relief.
The guard, for example, has been ferrying supplies into the New Rochelle area in New York. It was not clear Sunday night what missions, if any, the Washington National Guard will perform. (When Inslee ordered school closures, he mentioned that the National Guard might help distribute food to students who need it but did not elaborate on that idea.)
Also Sunday, Trump announced that the Navy’s hospital ship USNS Mercy will head to Los Angeles and not to the Puget Sound, a destination Inslee had requested in his letter to Trump, saying the ship could help handle Washington’s surge of new patients.
Washington has more COVID-19 cases than California. The decision to deploy the ship to California and not Washington was based on an analysis of potential needs for hospital beds on the West Coast, FEMA administrator Peter Gaynor said at the news conference.
“While I am very disappointed the USNS Mercy is not coming to [Washington], I appreciate that federal field hospitals are on the way to help with increased medical needs,” Inslee wrote Sunday afternoon in a tweet. “My staff and I will keep working until we have the resources necessary to care for all Washingtonians.”
Details about the timing and amount of money Washington might receive as a result of Trump’s declaration were not immediately available.
“Today’s declaration does not unlock many forms of federal assistance we have requested to help workers and families who are badly hurting,” Inslee said. “We will continue working with our federal partners to deliver the full suite of disaster assistance that is sorely needed in our state, such as expanded benefits for workers who lose their paychecks as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.”
The state’s unemployment system, for example, has been inundated with claims. Last week, the state’s Employment Security Department (ESD) released stark numbers: 500,000 users at the agency’s website (esd.wa.gov) over a two-day span that would normally see 30,000 users; 19,250 phone calls in a single day, a 827% jump from the same day the previous week.
For the week of March 14, unemployment claims by workers at accommodation and food-and-drink businesses jumped nearly 600% from the previous week. (Per federal reporting guidelines, ESD’s data usually has a 7- to 10-day lag.)
Washington has other pressing concerns: Last week, King County identified a soccer field in Shoreline to serve as a temporary, 200-bed field hospital for those unable to isolate and recover from COVID-19. State hospital workers have been making protective medical masks from office supplies. Due to the expected economic fallout, Inslee ordered a statewide, 30-day moratorium on evictions.
King County Executive Dow Constantine said some federal assistance is better than none. “We need all hands on deck,” he said. “Though the federal government has struggled, anything that will help people survive, pay rent, put food on the table and soldier on will be welcome.”
As officials fielded federal aid, the elected mayors of eight mostly South King County cities issued a joint letter supporting Inslee’s self-isolation orders but warning their residents that they may “take additional steps to protect our communities” if people don’t do the right thing.
“The most imperative practice to reduce the spread of this virus is to stay home and avoid contact with others,” said the letter, signed by the mayors of Auburn, Kent, Renton, Federal Way, Tukwila, Enumclaw, Algona and Pacific. “We strongly urge our residents follow those best practices to prevent additional measures from being enacted. If these best practices are not followed, we will need to take further action.”
The mayor of Everett has already imposed more stringent requirements on residents in that city.
But Inslee’s response to Trump’s statement about funds for counseling services struck a more dire tone: “The state urgently requires additional federal emergency assistance in order to save lives, protect public health and safety, and limit further spread of the disease.”
As Inslee tried to ramp up resources in the fight against the pandemic Sunday, he named the head of Washington state’s COVID-19 health-care response team: Retired Navy Vice Admiral Raquel C. Bono, a surgeon and former director for the Defense Health Agency.