KENT — While fighting off another legal challenge to block a quarantine site from opening in a Kent motel, King County on Wednesday identified the facility’s “first temporary resident” — an unidentified person who may become the region’s first known case of a homeless individual infected with the novel coronavirus.
The revelation that the county had moved a patient with viruslike symptoms into the vacant Econo Lodge on Central Avenue North late Tuesday, pending test results, came during a hearing before a Superior Court commissioner tasked with deciding on the city of Kent’s latest attempt to get a temporary restraining order against the quarantine facility.
It also came with dire estimates in the county’s legal pleadings: that more homeless patients are likely to soon join the first one under quarantine at the Kent motel, as officials say they now fear COVID-19 could ultimately infect more than 1,000 people experiencing homelessness in the area.
Commissioner Mark Hillman, for the second time in less than a week, rejected the city’s motion for a temporary restraining order based on contentions that the county should have gone through Kent’s permitting process so the city could apply health and safety conditions on the facility before it opens in the motel.
Instead, 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.
Howard Schneiderman, a lawyer for King County, provided few details about the quarantined patient early Wednesday, saying only that the person had been a resident in a local homeless shelter. The patient has symptoms consistent with COVID-19, the illness caused by the fast-spreading virus known as SARS-CoV-2, and is now awaiting test results, he said. Schneiderman added he did not immediately know in which shelter the person had been living.
A declaration filed in court late Tuesday on behalf of Leo Flor, director of the county’s Department of Community and Human Services, said that more homeless shelter residents likely are headed for quarantine and isolation at the motel in the days and weeks ahead.
“We anticipate that with the enhanced testing, that we will see a spike in residence at the Econo Lodge,” Flor’s declaration states.
“Both today and yesterday, we also heard from local shelters that they are observing an increased number of residents with symptoms consistent with coronavirus. The ability of shelters to quarantine symptomatic people is typically very limited. In most shelters, people sleep in very close shared quarters, in some cases, only six inches apart.”
Flor’s declaration added, “in the homeless population, we could see more than 1,000 people at the peak with a serious health response to the coronavirus.”
Along with seniors, those with underlying health conditions are believed to be vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19, which had killed 29 people and infected 337 others in Washington as of Wednesday afternoon. That means people experiencing homelessness are particularly at-risk: the population, nationally, is aging rapidly and chronically homeless people tend to have serious medical issues, often exacerbated by years of living without a permanent home.
Those in shelters often live in extremely close quarters, making social distancing difficult. One of Seattle’s largest shelters, operated by the Downtown Emergency Service Center, has taken steps to move clients out of its facility, in order to make more space.
Hillman’s ruling Wednesday, following an hourlong hearing at the Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent, rejected the city’s contentions, argued by attorney Neil Dial, that the city has a constitutional right to apply conditions on such a facility through its zoning and land-use regulations to ensure that the welfare and safety of Kent citizens are protected. The city likely would have granted a temporary emergency use permit in three days had the county applied for one, Dial added.
“The city of Kent wants to be a team player,” Dial said, adding many citizens have expressed concerns to the city about using the motel as a quarantine facility.
But under emergency-declaration authorities, Hillman ruled, the local health officer’s authority supersedes city laws. The commissioner noted the county has attested that patients placed in the motel would agree to remain there under quarantine, and the county would provide 24-hour security, counseling, three meals per day and other services to patients. Hillman also ordered that only patients with exposure to or symptoms of COVID-19 — not tuberculosis or other health conditions, as the county had wanted — could be quarantined at the site.
“All of these conditions mitigate the concerns expressed by the city, which (aims) to protect its citizens,” Hillman said.
Hillman’s ruling will remain in effect through March 20, when a Superior Court judge will take up the city’s legal attempts for a permanent injunction.
The clash over the matter began a week ago, when Kent officials raised objections to the county’s plans to use the vacant, 88-room motel for quarantine and isolation of those recovering from, or potentially exposed to, the novel coronavirus.
Kent Mayor Dana Ralph complained that King County Executive Dow Constantine and his office never informed or consulted with the city about its plans. Ralph and other city officials said the decision would put Kent citizens at risk of exposure to the virus, and contended Constantine targeted Kent rather than a more affluent community for the facility because of the South King County city’s diverse, low-income demographics.
County officials disputed that, saying the Econo Lodge was the only motel on the market that met public health’s criteria, which includes rooms for patients with separate HVAC units and doors that open to the outside, not to a hallway.
Dial had argued the county didn’t consider using other sites for the facility, and noted during a previous hearing on Friday, the county contended it needed the facility available immediately to quarantine 10 firefighters who had been exposed during a deadly coronavirus outbreak at the Life Care Center of Kirkland nursing home.
“Despite all the hyperbole we heard Friday, (the county) still hasn’t taken any action,” Dial said.
A day after last week’s hearing, a city of Kirkland spokeswoman said her city had not discussed with the county any plans to quarantine firefighters in Kent and disputed that any would be sent to the motel.
Schneiderman said Wednesday that at the time of last week’s hearing, public health officials expected to quarantine the firefighters at the motel. “This situation is changing so quickly,” he told The Seattle Times. “Initially, that was the expectation. It was true, but the situation changed.”
Schneiderman also countered to Hillman that pursuing a city permit wasn’t necessary under the authorities granted in state law for a public health emergency, saying the city’s legal arguments were “dead wrong,” and “based on fear, not in facts.”
“Everybody’s afraid of this epidemic,” he added. “We all are. It’s scary. But that’s not a reason to grant a temporary restraining order” against a quarantine facility authorized by an emergency declaration.
“The citizens of Kent are rightfully concerned about having a quarantine and isolation site thrust upon their community, especially when there appears that there has been less than helpful communications,” Hillman said.
But, the commissioner added: “I’m satisfied that Kent wasn’t chosen for anything other than for the Econo Lodge … Perhaps it was fortuitous that it was available to address this crisis.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the type of permit that city of Kent officials said they would have granted for the quarantine facility as a conditional use permit. The permit cited by the city’s lawyer was a temporary emergency use permit.