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Sunday, May 24, 2020

Essential government workers succeed in safety measures

Whatcom County employees adapt to new COVID-19 guidelines despite PPE shortage

A homemade sign in the Roosevelt neighborhood in Bellingham offers a message of gratitude for frontline workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. // Photo by Emma Toscani

By Tyler Brown

Protesters flocked to the streets across the world on Friday, International Labor Day, speaking out in solidarity with essential workers who are faced with a lack of personal protective equipment and hazard pay. Essential workers on the front line of the pandemic are the ones most at risk, and the PPE shortage is only making things more difficult for those who are most exposed. 

Washington has clarified who qualifies as essential workers on the state website coronavirus.wa.gov. Behavioral health workers, food and shelter suppliers and workers who conduct community-based public health functions are among them.

Anne Deacon, health department manager for Whatcom County, is considered an essential worker.

Deacon said she and her coworkers plan every day with thoughts on how to stay safe. She said the benefit of working in the health department is getting to know proper precautionary measures as the news comes in.

“Everyone is keenly aware of how to act with each other,” Deacon said. “We all know to keep a healthy distance, or if necessary, I’ll keep myself locked in my office when I’m not at home.  Obviously the work has been huge, but the bigger issue has been trying to maintain the sanity of my workers.” 

Deacon said health department employees are working as many as 80-90 hour work weeks, depending on how the days are treating them. She said some days are harder than others but insisted she doesn’t have it nearly as bad as some of her peers.  

“I have been putting in less hours compared to my coworkers who have been on the front line since this started,” Deacon said. “Everyone is aware of their obligations. I think people get overwhelmed, because sometimes the pace is just incredible and you have to make decisions that are so big, it feels like, and for some people that’s just so much mental stress.”

The Crisis Stabilization Facility, which Deacon has been overseeing since its beginnings in 2017, is still set to open by August. The facility is considered a public works project, allowing construction to continue through the pandemic. 

Workers are still asked to social distance at the site and wear protective gear to ensure safety and that the project is completed in a timely manner. Deacon said that workers are committed to safety and making the choice to comply was not hard.  

Deacon said it’s been impressive seeing people in the workforce respond positively to the regulations around the pandemic, and that no one was prepared for it, including the federal government.

“We have been getting our [PPE] supplies from only one area and that has been a challenge in terms of getting them here,” Deacon said. “I’m thankful for the people doing something and stepping up and creating masks, like that [Whatcom Mask Collective] group here in Bellingham.

Tyler Byrd, Whatcom County Council representative for District 3, said all of his work has been held in meetings from home, with council meetings being streamed on the county website. Byrd said that most, if not all, meetings and work are done remotely.  

On the county website it reads, “The health and safety of the community and our employees is a priority. In accordance with Executive Order 2020-01, the Council Office is restricted to employees only. Councilmembers and staff will continue to assist the public by mail, email, and phone.”

John Gargett, deputy director of the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office Division of Emergency Management, is one of three individuals overseeing Unified Command, a task force implemented not unlike the Incident Command System, charged with addressing the county response to the pandemic. Gargett said the reason for unified command is to combine all organizations and commands. This particular event is a public health emergency and all activities are driven by public health officials at the county and city level.  

This unified command is also responsible for allocating money and distribution of PPE for the county, which Gargett said has its challenges but is no more difficult than the day to day.

Gargett said that the command process has been streamlined since January when his team and superiors were still keeping an eye on the activity of the virus in Wuhan, China. Activating the unified command allows for a heightened focus from his office to address the crisis.  

Gargett said the fast focus for the command team to respond is standard for any event, and said that he and his team do more than their share of keeping safe during the pandemic.  

“From day one we implemented strict guidelines for the building, … no use of door handles, no public bathrooms with private use only along with serious cleaning,” Gargett said. “We dropped down capacity [from 90] to 70-80 people, two weeks after the announcement of the pandemic dropping [capacity] down to 60 then to 40.” 

Gargett’s building is a 25,000 sq. ft. building with a max capacity of 275 people, one he said is considered small. Implementing safety measures was a priority from the earliest days to protect coworkers and friends. All work spaces are socially distanced. Even in group meetings each chair is measured out for 6 and a half feet back to front with tape on the floor to ensure proper care and distance.

Gargett said a nurse checks the temperature of each person who is then asked to use hand sanitizer. Workers are checked in electronically by scanning a barcode on their badges to avoid physical contact. Should someone go outside, their temperature is taken again and checked for anything like sore throat or cough.

“This is not a building you want to say you have a headache in,” Gargett said.  “We don’t just follow [Centers for Disease Control] policy, we excel.”

All delivery of work equipment is segregated and sanitized with a similar process as the front door health check, Gargett said. No people from outside, such as delivery drivers, are allowed to use bathrooms or come into the building at all. Gargett said that as of now, about 30 to 40 people are available in the building each day, with an easy 10 to 15 feet between coworkers.

Gargett said it’s worthwhile to note that since the first day of unified command, Jan. 21 this year, not one person in the department has been sick with COVID-19.  

“Anybody that is sick, says they have a sore throat or whatever, leads to an escort out of the building with a mandatory 72 hour isolation period,” Gargett said.

The command team has moved all of their remote workers to using gotomeeting.com and avoided using Zoom per government restrictions and warnings due to the ongoing concerns over the company’s security risks and vulnerability to hackers and “Zoom bombings.” 

“You can’t send somebody a box of face masks over an internet connection,” Gargett said. “But, let me put it this way, you don’t ever have enough [PPE]. The desire to have PPE is of course always there. We just had a request from a hospital for about 200,000 gowns, which makes sense if they are looking for more in case of a shortage.”

Gargett said there has always been a demand for PPE and that supplying the demand is always there but that he has “heard of people needing more, but no one running out.”

A statement made on March 18 was signed by the county executive, mayors of all county cities, tribal officials, some elected members of the Port of Bellingham and the Whatcom County Council giving Unified Command the power to make decisions regarding pandemic response with recommendation from a policy group of local leaders.

Gargett said that he and his team are not anticipating things to take a dramatic turn with the extension of Gov. Jay Inslee’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order moved to May 31, but he said it would not surprise him if infection rates increase. 

“I wish I had a crystal ball that could see what’s next,” Gargett said. “But I don’t. We’ll just have to see what happens.”

Byrd said the extension of the stay-at-home order has not impacted him much and that most county workers were expecting the Inslee extension, saying it was more a matter of how long the extension was expected to be.

Deacon said so long as people ensure they are following CDC guidelines and being safe, things should be okay.

“The fact of the matter is, the more people who follow social distancing and follow the rules, the faster we get to come out of this,” Deacon said. “The message is that this doesn’t last forever, and there are people who have it worse than us right now.” 

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