King County making changes, improvements at its Kent quarantine/isolation facility

City, nearby businesses are alarmed after a patient fled the site and boarded a Metro bus

King County is making changes at its Kent isolation and quarantine facility in the aftermath of a security lapse.

A homeless man, who voluntarily took a room there waiting for results of his test for the coronavirus, managed to wander free from security at the facility on Central Avenue North, steal food from a convenience store across the street and board a northbound Metro bus Friday morning.

Late Friday, the man’s test results had come back negative.

“We are both happy and relieved,” Mayor Dana Ralph said in a Facebook post. “However, the situation our community faced earlier reinforces our need to hear a plan from the county to guarantee the safety and security of the Kent community, including the patients they house at the quarantine facility.”

Concerned city officials and angry business owners in the area have called for the county to bolster safety and supervision of the former Econo Lodge motel.

“The things we predicted have happened,” Ralph told reporters at a news conference Friday morning. “I’m angry, I’m frustrated, and I feel like our entire city through this entire process continues to be disrespected.”

Responding to the community’s concerns, King County – together with Public Health – Seattle & King County – is changing the protocol for the motel, which the county bought for $4 million to isolate and quarantine potential COVID-19 cases. County and Public Health officials said in release Saturday that they will no longer use the Kent facility to house people who need social services like mental health counseling and help with homelessness.

The county said in the release that “it will continue to provide temporary housing for people who cannot self-isolate or quarantine in their own home, but will use the Kent location for people with lower level service needs.”

Individuals can only be placed into the Kent site after a health professional with Public Health – Seattle & King County has determined that they need isolation or quarantine, the county said.

Other improvements have begun.

“Additional site work, including construction of a surrounding fence, are underway,” the county release said. “At this time, no one is currently staying at the Kent Central Avenue motel location.”

Only two people have occupied the facility since it opened this past week, and both tested negative for the virus.

County officials anticipate a growing number of people will need to be isolated and quarantined in the days ahead. They are looking to open new units elsewhere and acquire the staffing to properly run them.

The county has identified and is establishing seven sites – Kent, White Center, two in Seattle, Issaquah, Bellevue, and the King County International Airport-Boeing Field – and is actively seeking additional sites. Geography is not likely to play a big role in which site people use, the county said, adding people throughout King County who will need a place to go, and they will be taken to the most appropriate site.

Security issues

Ralph wishes county leaders would improve not only safety measures at the Kent facility but open channels of communication as the pandemic continues.

City officials and business owners want answers and assurances that the facility will be safe and properly operated.

“We do not know what the security plan is for the facility,” Ralph added. “The county has made it very clear they do not have the authority to detain people against their will, which has been a part of our concern.

“We know we can’t make a medical facility a jail. That’s not what were asking for,” Ralph said. “We’ve been asking for fencing … a gate … for almost two weeks now … and to have more measures in place.”

Asked if Kent Police could provide officers as a security measure or deterrent, Chief Rafael Padilla replied:

“It is possible, but here’s the issue. … We have 130,000 people that we are trying to keep relatively calm and safe, and this is just one more draw on resources that we don’t have,” he explained. “I’ve said this many times, (the) Kent Police Department does not have the staffing that it needs right now. To put an added burden on it? It’s part of our concern right now.”

Padilla and city leaders have said Kent, for it size and population, needs more than 190 officers. With vacant positions, staffing is currently at 153 officers.

Business leaders being heard

King County Councilmember Dave Upthegrove has corresponded with Kent business owners, fielding their concerns about the quarantine site.

Jim Berrios, a restaurateur, community leader and former Kent City Councilman, and other local business owners have united in opposition to the location and purpose of the facility, which sits along the same avenue with some of the city’s well-known and reputable stores and lots.

Upthegrove has answered tough questions, reiterating that such facilities are necessary to respond to the growing number of virus cases in the region, and that the county continues to follow the experts’ steps to properly and safely operate them.

“The Public Health department believes we need capacity for about 3,000 people,” Upthegrove said. “The county has identified/secured seven sites so far and is working aggressively to secure more capacity. They are unpopular in every neighborhood, and the county is facing political backlash from some people in each community, and will continue to face political opposition as more and more sites are secured.

“I will be taking my guidance from our Public Health experts and supporting their work – even when politically uncomfortable or unpopular,” Upthegrove added. “Saving lives is more important than saving my job. I will continue to be available to listen and to share information and keep people informed. We have one of the best Public Health teams in the world here in the Pacific Northwest and, with our county as the national epicenter of the outbreak, we are setting the path for the rest of the nation.”

Upthegrove told business leaders that he has been in regular communication with Ralph and has advocated for site conditions and protocols that maximize safety at the Kent site.

“And (I) am doing my best to get information and answer questions,” he said.