When coronavirus cases first emerged in Washington state in February, King County officials spent $4.5 million in emergency funds to buy an 85-room Econolodge in the greater Seattle area, throwing another $1.5 million on top for renovations.
As the epicenter of one of the largest outbreaks in the U.S., King County anticipated that its hospitals would likely become overwhelmed with a surge of patients. The county needed to make more space to put sick individuals who would need to be isolated but wouldn’t require hospitalization, and for people who don’t have a home to be isolated or quarantined in — like the homeless or those living in shelters.
With coronavirus cases escalating in the U.S., other cities may soon also face a shortage of space. Whereas in Wuhan, China, where the global outbreak originated, the national government was able to step in to build two large hospitals in a matter of weeks to house the sick and protect the rest of the public, the division of power in the U.S. places that burden on the local government. (Plus, “it’s too darn expensive,” says Howard Markel, a medical historian at the University of Michigan.)
America’s defense against epidemics “is divided among 2,684 state, local, and tribal public-health departments,” Emory University legal historian Polly Price recently that finding “even a small number of units can be challenging,” in part because vacant hotels are hard to come by in the city.
Then there are American citizens being repatriated. In California, officials are still evacuating more than 2,500 passengers from the Grand Princess cruise ship who will need to be quarantined after 21 people on board tested positive for the virus. In this case, the federal government — which is responsible for the evacuation and working with state and city government to quarantine those people — is converting military bases, the most abundant of government-owned facilities, into quarantine sites in California, Georgia, and Texas
But even those are limited, and without all levels of the government on board, Price says, such plans spark conflict. A dozen passengers who have mild symptoms but have not been tested for the coronavirus were sent to a state-owned conference center in Monterey County. That prompted concerns from local officials who say the state did not notify them beforehand and essentially gave the county no option but to accept the passengers. A district supervisor told Mercury News that her residents are anxious, and that the sudden news is already affecting the city’s tourism-driven economy.
Back in King County, Washington, the move to buy a hotel isn’t without controversy, as Kent city officials protest the county’s decision. “They are replicating and bringing a situation similar in scale to the Life Care Center of Kirkland and dropping it off in Kent,” Mayor Dana Ralph said at a news conference last Wednesday, referring to the nursing home that’s at the center of King County’s coronavirus-related deaths. The city filed a motion to put a temporary restraining order on the county, and after a county judge denied it, Ralph pledged to continue the fight in court.
“If you look back at our more distant past, it’s common for regions, if they see an outbreak spreading, to try to do everything to keep it from coming to them,” Price says. “The thought is, ‘We don’t want these facilities in our backyard.’”
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