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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

The ‘brain’: Emergency Coordination Center at the heart of Spokane’s COVID-19 response

Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, at top, visits the operations and planning room at the Spokane County COVID-19 Emergency Coordination Center, Friday, March 27, 2020. Based in the Spokane Fire Department's Training Center, the Covid-19 ECC brings local law enforcement, government and civilian agencies together to facilitate a coordinated response to the local coronavirus pandemic. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

There are no flames to spray water on. There is no criminal to handcuff.

In an unassuming, out-of-the-way building near Spokane Community College, scores of elected leaders, emergency responders and public health officials coordinate their response to the crisis facing Spokane County.

But in the Emergency Coordination Center, the current challenge is unlike any its leaders have ever taken on before.

“Let’s face it, we usually have something to go out and fix. Knock that fire down. Deal with the snow event, the earthquake,” said Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich. “Most of us are law enforcement, firefighters … now we’re coordinating an effort of a public health emergency and an economic emergency.”

The task is two-pronged, to address the increasing public health crisis presented by COVID-19 and the economic fallout caused by tight restrictions needed to limit the virus’ spread.

“This is a public health emergency that is unfortunately causing a social emergency, and the only way that the public health emergency and the social emergency can be addressed is by us working collectively through this kind of structure,” said Bob Lutz, health officer of the Spokane Regional Health District.

As health officer, Lutz sits atop the power structure of the Emergency Command Center. Knezovich looks to the doctor for his marching orders, and the sheriff’s task is to marshal the resources public health officials call for to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Those efforts have been headquartered at the emergency coordination center, which Knezovich likens to the “brain” of the emergency response system, at the Spokane Fire Department’s training building. It was launched two weeks ago, just as Spokane County was receiving its first positive test results for COVID-19.

But the virus was rapidly spreading in the Puget Sound area before that, and local leaders were dusting off their own pandemic response plans in preparation for its eventual impact east of the Cascades.

“A lot of groups were working on things independently rather than interdependently,” Lutz said.

That, Knezovich warned, is dangerous. The more those silos are formed and entrenched, the more difficult they are to break down.

“It drags on scarce resources,” Knezovich said. “People don’t realize how razor-thin these operations really are.”

Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs and Knezovich agree that at least initially, the city of Spokane and its regional partners were not working hand-in-hand.

“It is getting better. It has to get better because there’s not enough resources in this community to run dual operations. We will not survive,” Knezovich said.

The city and county started in “two different places,” Beggs said.

“It’s easy to look back with 20/20 vision, (but) we probably should’ve had that ECC stood up a week earlier,” Beggs said, but he added “I’ve noticed an improvement in the quality of the meetings in terms of people being on-task and effective and coordinated.”

The city of Spokane had already formed its own incident management team prior to the establishment of the regional effort and had made progress in its own response plan. But it soon realized “we’re more impactful when we’re working together on this,” said Mayor Nadine Woodward.

“We’ve been able to integrate all of the cities within the county so that we can work collaboratively,” Woodward added.

The progress the coordination center has made in just two weeks is “remarkable,” Lutz said.

The emergency coordination center is helmed by the county’s health officer, medical program director and medical examiner. Beneath those three is a network of support services, including Greater Spokane Emergency Management, the regional emergency response network overseen by the sheriff. Local hospitals, school districts and transportation services all also play a role in the system.

Since its launch two weeks ago, the number of employees physically present in the coordination center on any given day exceeds 50, but the total number of employees among partner agencies is far greater. They include emergency management professionals, financial experts, planners, public information officers and more.

Knezovich likens the scope of operations to an accordion. The greater the emergency, the wider he’ll expand the coordination center’s resources.

“We’re into new ground. This is one of those hundred-year-type events,” Knezovich said.

This week, leaders worked to establish a three-part, long-term plan for the next 30, 60, and 90 days.

Woodward said the center had some time to do long-term strategic planning last week, but Friday brought news of the county’s first death attributed to the virus as the number of confirmed cases eclipsed 100.

Though they’ve planned through 90 days, officials have no idea how long the coordination center will be up and running, just as health officials can’t precisely predict how long it will take for the COVID-19 pandemic to run its course.

“We will be here as long as the need is here,” Knezovich said. “I’m hopeful we’re not here 90 days from now.”

There are myriad challenges regional officials are still working through.

Lutz announced plans for an alternate care facility at the county fairgrounds in Spokane Valley. The concept is to have a space where people who are sick, but do not yet or no longer require hospitalization, can be isolated and receive treatment in a place that isn’t their home.

The details of the alternate care site remain a work in progress, and officials hope to release more information in the upcoming week.

The coordination center is also where local leaders, particularly elected officials, are trying to wrap their heads around the economic impact of the coronavirus. With so many Americans already living paycheck to paycheck, Knezovich said the true brunt of rapid layoffs will begin to be felt in a matter of weeks.

“How do we take care of not just the homeless, but how do we take care of these newly laid off, unemployed people?” Knezovich asked.

As both the public health and economic crisis worsens, volunteer efforts have sprouted up throughout the area. In Knezovich’s view, that’s a testament to the people of Spokane. But to be efficient, Knezovich argued these volunteer drives – everything from food collection to mask-sewing – should be coordinated.

“There has to be a single clearinghouse for all of that,” Knezovich said.

The coordination center has also become a single source of information related to the region’s response to COVID-19. Its Facebook page, Spokane COVID Response, has already attracted more than 2,600 followers, many of whom tune in for daily 10 a.m. briefings that are livestreamed.

“The most important thing we can do is keep people informed,” Knezovich said. “My biggest concern is the level of panic and fear we’re facing.”

The center is, by its nature, impermanent. But Knezovich hopes its impact sticks in the minds of local leaders.

“Once this is over, I hope you just don’t put us back on the shelf and forget about us. I hope that you take a look at what we have and what we don’t have and truly invest in the needs that we have,” he said.