The relationship between the City of Centralia and the state Department of Health seems to have improved in recent days after Secretary of Health Dr. Umair Shah addressed concerns posed by Mayor Susan Luond in a letter last week about its state-run isolation and quarantine facility, and as the department strengthens its communication with the county and city.
Local officials were caught off guard last month when news surfaced that the state would be relocating its sole isolation and quarantine facility to a small inn located just off Interstate 5 in Centralia. The state has admitted to not communicating stakeholders of the last-minute move and officials from the department have apologized.
In his response to Luond, Shah outlined DOH’s decision-making process to relocate its site to the 40-bed Lakeview Inn and the safety measures and risk mitigation strategies it has implemented. He voiced his commitment to explore options to help the city recover lost lodging taxes that came as a result of the department’s occupation of the motel.
“I was very pleased that all the questions were answered in detail by your department, and I really appreciate the response and feel the communication, as you’ve just stated, will be more open in the future. And that’s basically what we’ve wanted, is just open communication so that we weren’t caught flat-footed,” Luond told Wayne Clifford, medical surge branch director with the DOH.
Councilor Kelly Smith Johnston agreed with Luond’s characterization of the state’s newfound cooperation, noting that “it’s like you’re our new best friends.”
The state’s isolation and quarantine facility is a completely voluntary program that serves travelers, shipping vessel crews, military personnel, Department of Corrections work-release inmates and anyone else who contracts COVID-19 while traveling through or doing business in Washington state.
The site serves infected people in the state who don't fall under jurisdiction of any specific county. It allows a location for people who were in close contact with someone infected to go to quarantine and a place for infected people to isolate and get over their illness.
In an update to the Centralia City Council, Clifford said there have been a total of 32 people who have been sent to the facility since it opened a month ago. Of those, two individuals have been from the state’s work-release program.
A total of 18 have requested isolation and 13 are quarantined. Two people have had to be transferred to a local hospital with worsening conditions.
DOH is currently tending to an outbreak on a shipping crew that was docked at Port Angeles recently. All of those crewmembers are currently in isolation and quarantine at the site.
Clifford said operating the site at Lakeview has largely been easy.
“We’ve had no real security incidents. We had somebody in the middle of the night come across the lake in a rowboat and came up on the shore and said they were looking for their girlfriend. We assured them their girlfriend was not here and they were probably on the wrong property,” he said. “That’s been about the extent of the excitement.”
Nathan Weed, acting assistant secretary for preparedness and response with DOH, told the council the department has increased its reporting frequency with Lewis County Public Health and Social Services and are now giving those staff daily briefings. He said they plan on keeping communication channels open with the city.
Clifford said no one has tried to leave the facility since it opened following the start of the COVID-19 pandemic because they’re motivated to get well and back on their course of travel.
Shah, in his letter to Luond, gave new insight into the department’s work in temporarily relocating the facility to Lewis County, saying the DOH was under “a very tight 60-day timeframe to identify locations, negotiate agreements and physically transition the operation to a new facility.”
Over the next two to three months, the state department is looking to find a more permanent location to operate its isolation and quarantine facility.
“Additionally, as we move toward the next legislative session, your engagement with us and the Legislature to advocate for an investment in permanent space for DOH state I/Q responsibilities would be appreciated,” Shah wrote.
He wrote that DOH’s search for a new facility began on March 4, following notice from their former lessor, a Tumwater-based Jewish summer camp, that they needed to vacate.
Shah said they considered the following criteria when identifying 13 venues throughout Lewis and Thurston counties: proximity to the Tumwater-based DOH offices; proximity to a hospital; proper ventilation to prevent cross contamination; a site that provided private bathrooms and showers; a laundry facility; and if an owner was willing to work with them.
Patients of the facility are also required to sign an occupancy agreement that says they won’t leave their room unless notified by staff. Staff are on-site at all times and DOH provides around-the-clock security staff to ensure work-release inmates don’t leave.
Shah said they took into account the city’s lost lodging tax revenues when considering its occupation of the motel. DOH is leasing the rooms at an elevated rate, he said, though it recently came to the department’s attention that the Department of Revenue would not collect the additional amount as DOH is occupying the building for longer than 30 days.
“DOH just learned about this late last week, and we are exploring options to provide the city of Centralia with what would have constituted the lodging tax each month. We will provide information on next steps as we obtain the needed information to move forward, but we do intend to provide relief to you under this arrangement,” he wrote.
In Letter to Inslee, Herrera Beutler Renews Criticism of Centralia Quarantine Facility
Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, on Monday sent a letter to Gov. Jay Inslee’s office again requesting information on the decision-making that led the state Department of Health to relocate its sole isolation and quarantine facility to a hotel in Centralia.
“I write to emphasize the Centralia community’s intensifying concerns with the state-run COVID-isolation facility and Department of Corrections holding center located at the Lakeview Inn,” the Washington representative starts in her letter. “I have yet to receive a response to any of the questions I sent you on May 19 on behalf of Lewis County citizens, so am reliant on the ongoing reporting of local media to gather additional information. What they have illuminated has only increased the outrage of local residents and businesses.”
Herrera Beutler in her previous inquiry to the state asked for the criteria and reasoning that went into the relocation to Lewis County.
Nathan Weed, DOH’s acting assistant secretary for preparedness and response, recently told Lewis County commissioners during a meeting that one of the variables that went into their decision to move the site was its proximity to Tumwater, where the state agency is headquartered. Herrera Beutler noted that she read about that detail in The Chronicle.
“From the first revelation that the state was dropping this COVID facility in the middle of Centralia without notifying the community, to learning that the comfort and convenience of state employees was a determining factor in this decision, the state has had its priorities totally backward in each step of this process,” Herrera Beutler wrote. “Congress did not approve and send Washington state hundreds of millions of dollars in federal COVID aid to prioritize the commutes of government employees over the safety and well-being of the community it’s supposed to be serving.”
The Department of Health told Lewis County commissioners it’s possible they could identify a more permanent site and be out of Lewis County by the end of July. Herrera Beutler said it would be “prudent to commit to and expedite” that action.