The operations center at the heart of Spokane’s response to COVID-19 is reaching its conclusion, even if the work to combat the spread of the disease has not.
About 10 weeks into a public health emergency, it’s already hard to imagine a Monday morning passing without Spokane County Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz stationed behind a lectern.
His routine is to share the latest tally of COVID-19 cases in Spokane and answer coronavirus questions in a Facebook Live briefing, which invariably ends as he signals “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” in slowly improving American Sign Language.
But with its staff already dwindling, the county’s Emergency Operations Center will soon dissolve, leaving a looser structure of government officials, business leaders and public health experts in its wake to steer the regional COVID-19 response.
“The intention is that the EOC as it currently exists will be sort of going away by the end of this month,” Lutz told The Spokesman-Review in an interview last week.
But in the event of a new surge of cases, the full EOC structure can be rebuilt within 72 hours, according to Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich.
As it dissolves, COVID-19 will be addressed under the Regional Governance Committee, which includes Spokane County Board of Commissioners Chair Al French, Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward, Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs and administrators from the city of Spokane, Spokane County and Spokane Valley.
In the past, it’s tackled issues such as homelessness and criminal justice reform from a countywide, collaborative perspective. When it comes to COVID-19 response, the committee will include representation from the Spokane Regional Health District and Greater Spokane Incorporated.
“We don’t really have any authority as a group, but we’re key stakeholders,” Beggs said.
Beneath that structure, committees and subcommittees formed during the coronavirus crisis will continue to meet as necessary to address issues related to COVID-19, such as homelessness and shelter.
“It was just a natural next step,” said Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward.
The 411 on the EOC
The Emergency Operations Center is in an unassuming brick building near Spokane Community College that, in normal times, is used as a fire training center. It popped up quickly in March, offering Spokane-area officials a central meeting place from which to organize and coordinate the local response to COVID-19. When in full swing, more than 100 employees from different agencies and governments were assigned to work there.
Already, people temporarily assigned to roles at the EOC have begun to transition back into their home offices.
“In general, people feel like the interlocal agreements and protocols we normally operate on we can do, we don’t all have to be in the same building,” Beggs said.
The Joint Information Center, colloquially known as “the JIC,” is the wing of the EOC that disseminates information – Spokane residents have the JIC to thank for daily Facebook Live briefings. It will stay in place as the rest of the EOC dissolves “to try to ensure coordinated communication going forward,” Lutz said.
On Tuesday, the EOC did not hold a daily briefing, and posted on Facebook that it would limit them to Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays moving forward.
Perhaps due to its rapidly ubiquitous presence, it feels like the EOC has been in existence since the day the coronavirus was discovered. But that it became the format of Spokane’s coronavirus response was not, at first, a certainty.
The city of Spokane had already formed its own incident response team to handle the coronavirus two weeks prior to the formation of the EOC, according to Woodward. She was prepared to declare an emergency on Thursday, March 19, but held off.
“We needed to approach this as a region, and it really falls into my priorities coming into office, and that is to collaborate regionally,” Woodward said. “It’s ironic that COVID forced us into that kind of a model earlier than I expected.”
Knezovich called for a central operations center, and it was quickly stood up in March.
“That’s how you coordinate the resources coming into the community,” Knezovich said.
The mission was twofold – mitigate the loss of life due to COVID-19 and mitigate the economic damage done to the economy due to the pandemic, Knezovich said.
“We’re working on and have a plan into the future to deal with isolation requirements, food distribution for those who have lost their jobs, and we developed a business/governmental think tank to help bring businesses back online,” Knezovich said.
The EOC helped coordinate a network of food distribution centers with Second Harvest, accept donations of items like hand-sewn masks at the county fairgrounds, and set up an isolation facility with capacity for 100 people.
“Very few states and very few communities can say they did what we did,” Knezovich said.
Knezovich said he takes “extreme exception” to any second-guessing from other local leaders.
“Any Monday morning quarterbacking these politicians want to do now is just that, Monday morning quarterbacking,” Knezovich said.
Some are still left questioning whether it was the correct approach, or at least how it could have more effectively functioned.
“I think most people would look back and say and it wasn’t necessarily the best fit,” Beggs said, adding that for COVID-19, “I think the truth is there was not a good fit of any structure.”
To view an organizational chart of the EOC’s power structure is almost as disorienting as looking through a kaleidoscope.
Knezovich, as leader of the county’s Department of Emergency Management, and Lutz sit atop, along with a three-member “unified command” team led by incident commanders Ray Byrne, Eric Finch and Chandra Fox.
Beneath them is a deputy incident commander, four liaisons to various stakeholder groups and three safety officers. Beneath two public information officers is the Joint Information Center, which is composed of 11 spokespeople from local governments and the private and public health sectors.
There were challenges early on in getting everyone on the same page, Woodward acknowledged, but that was a side effect of having more than 100 people all under one roof.
“There was a lot going on, and some of these decisions had to be made very, very quickly,” Woodward said.
Beggs believes the EOC could have worked more effectively, but stopped short of criticizing any specific leader or committee. The structure of the EOC resulted in “midlevel decision-makers making decisions” without top-tier leaders in city or county government in the room, he said.
“It seemed really clunky to get actual decisions, and it was not very transparent,” Beggs said. “I really could rarely figure out how decisions were being made.”
As an example, Beggs pointed to the EOC’s new plans for isolation, which are centered on the use of hotels, dormitories and other spaces to house people diagnosed with, or showing symptoms of, COVID-19 who can’t isolate at home.
That could have been the plan six weeks ago, Beggs said, and he emailed EOC leaders saying so. Instead, the EOC carried on with a seldom-used, 100-person-capacity isolation center at the county fairgrounds and paid its operator, the Guardians Foundation, a monthly rate over $300,000 to run it.
Looking at a photo of the stark, empty isolation facility, Beggs asked, “Who would ever want to be there?”
“Get them rooms at the Davenport (hotel) if you want to blow money,” Beggs said.
But when the directive came from Lutz to find an isolation facility with capacity of up to 100 people, leaders acted quickly.
“At the beginning we had to find a surge capacity of 100. That was the mission. Thank God we never saw that,” Knezovich said.
Although some have questioned its cost, the isolation facility was costly because of the population it served, which was primarily people who are homeless, according to Knezovich.
Spokane County Commission Chair Al French said the frustration felt by Beggs “is universal among the electeds, because there were a lot of folks that were not elected that were making decisions about funding opportunities and options.”
“So you worry about where’s the accountability? Is somebody really spending money because they need to, or spending money because they can? Now I think we’re reaching a point to where that level of accountability is now going to be the norm,” French said.
But, like Beggs, French refrained from criticizing anyone specifically and acknowledged the challenges in deciding how to spend money while guidance from its sources – primarily the state and federal governments – was often vague or elusive.
“I don’t want to say that anybody misspent money, because that hasn’t surfaced, but could we have spent the money better? I think we could have,” French said.
Weeks ago, French had also flagged concerns about the EOC’s plans for an alternative care facility at the fairgrounds. It never materialized, as the county’s COVID-19 case numbers never stretched beyond hospital capacities, but the facility would have provided beds to COVID-19 patients who did not require hospitalization but could not return home – at a price tag of about $8 million, according to French.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, Act is the central source of aid, totaling about $90 million, for the county’s coronavirus response. But a web of other resources have been made available, including through the Federal Emergency Management Agency and state Department of Commerce.
French said the per-night cost of housing someone at the alternative care facility was comparable to that of the county jail, but without meals and security.
“When I first heard about that, I had an ‘Oh dear God’ moment,” French said.
The emergency brought on by COVID-19 was atypical, French said, because leaders could “never draw a line in the sand” and point to a specific end date for their response.
“Now what we know is how to respond to this kind of emergency in the future, I think we’ve learned some valuable lessons,” French said.
Woodward and Beggs said the process evolved for the better.
“When you’re making decisions fast, you don’t always get to bicker about cost and things like that,” Woodward said. “This was a great exercise for the region.”
As the EOC dissolves, officials expect reflection and study on how it operated.
“Hopefully, if we ever have to deal with this again – and I hope not in my lifetime – we will be a little bit more targeted about how we spend our resources,” French said.
But the proof of the EOC’s efficacy – and that of the Spokane region’s entire COVID-19 response – is in the numbers, Woodward argued, and on Friday the county was allowed to enter Phase 2 of Gov. Jay Inslee’s Safe Start Washington plan ahead of much of the rest of the state.
Despite that progress, officials want to ensure the EOC can be stood back up immediately in the case of a resurgence, which Lutz warned is a real possibility as restrictions on daily life are loosened.
“We do not understand COVID-19,” Lutz said. “I don’t want to provide anyone with any false hopes or expectations. I am not by nature an optimist. I think I’m a practical realist.”
As schools possibly reopen, events resume and life gets back to some semblance of normal, Lutz said there are a “lot of possibilities to see upticks in case counts.”
It’s how we react, he said, that will be key.
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