Kent Bowl was packed last Friday night. It's busy season for the Washington state bowling alley—the temperatures are still chilly and football’s over, which means people are looking to entertain themselves inside. In many ways, it was like any other late-winter night: dozens of bowlers lining up to get their slick-soled shoes and candy-colored bowling balls, blue cans of Bud Light dotting the border of the lanes, the rhythm of pins crashing down. Everything was normal, except for one major difference: Less than a week earlier, Washington Governor Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency over a deadly outbreak of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel strain of coronavirus currently crashing its way across the globe.
Across a highway from Kent Bowl is a modest, two-story 85-bed motel that government officials are transforming into an isolation and quarantine facility for coronavirus patients. Until last Friday, March 6, when it was hauntingly covered with thick black paint, the motel still had its glowing red Econo Lodge sign out in front.
The city of Kent, part of King County which includes Seattle, like much of the country, is facing an outbreak of COVID-19; as of March 11, 22 people in the county have died from the virus. The county bought Kent Motel for $4 million (slightly less than it's $4.2 million asking price) during the first week of March with a plan to put $1.5 million into the facility—including hiring up to eleven motel employees to work at the isolation center. When I called the front desk at the motel last week, an employee answered the phone and said they hadn't been offered a job. When I asked if they'd continue working there, they responded quickly: "No! We were shocked." When I called again at the beginning of this week, no one picked up, the Tetris-sounding hold song just played on repeat.
A representative for Choice Hotels, which owns Econo Lodge, told me: “The hotel in King County has been exited from the Econo Lodge system for reasons unrelated to the coronavirus and is no longer part of Choice Hotels International. It should not be referred to as an Econo Lodge,” the rep said. The property was “exited” on March 5.
The transformation of the motel into an isolation station has been a controversial measure in Kent, the sixth largest city in the state, about nineteen miles outside of Seattle. As of this writing, on March 11, Kent itself has no known cases of COVID-19. Thousands have signed an online petition to move the facility to a less populated area. And the mayor has spoken out firmly against it. But as the coronavirus spreads throughout the United States, and hospital beds fill up, what’s happening in King County illustrates a community grappling with the magnitude and uncertainty of a pandemic.
Kent Mayor Dana Ralph first heard the county was looking to purchase a motel, along with temporary “modular units” (or trailers), to house patients last Monday, March 2, when a press release from the county sparked national news attention. Things moved quickly from there: that afternoon, one of her constituents called to say they’d heard a rumor that the only property the county was looking at was in Kent. By Wednesday, March 4, the announcement came that the county had purchased the Kent motel and members of the media could tour one of its rooms.
The mayor wasn't happy. “We had no opportunity to slow it down or put a stop to it. The county used their authority after exercising the state of emergency. So there was no process at all,” she told me the day after the announcement. Ralph claims a public health official told her last week that the county had considered buying the property for the past several months to use it “as a possible site for a permanent quarantine facility for other infectious diseases like hepatitis A, measles, and tuberculosis.” (That's in dispute: a representative for King County said, “To answer your question about ‘looking at the hotel for the past several months,’ that is not true.”)
The Kent motel, which was on the market for less than a month, is located on a busy thoroughfare that many drive through to get into town. It's on the same stretch as Kent Bowl, along with a Denny's, Bowen Scarff Ford Lincoln dealership, and Carpinito Bros, a popular farm stand and landscape company. Despite its central location, the motel actually checks a number of boxes for optimum quarantine and isolation: the rooms each have a separate HVAC unit, which means air isn't passed from room to room, along with separate doors to each room that open to the outside instead of a hallway, and there are hard surfaces and seamless floors. “The independent HVAC is a big part so it can kind of make sure people are isolated and in a safe place to recover," King County deputy communications director Chase Gallagher explained.
Calls for self-quarantine, isolation, and containment spread almost (though not quite) as quickly as the virus itself over the past week. On Tuesday, March 10, in New York state, governor Andrew Cuomo announced a "containment zone" around the suburban town of New Rochelle, the site of the state's biggest outbreak. All of Italy has been declared a "red zone," meaning people should stay home except for work and emergencies. The U.S. government has set up fifteen quarantine facilities at military bases—five primary bases plus additional locations announced in early February. “Patients in Rhode Island are quarantining at home,” Rhode Island Department of Health public information officer Joseph Wendelken told me in a statement last week. On Wednesday, March 11, Seattle announced it was closing the public schools for two weeks.
But not everyone can quarantine at home. The plan for the Kent motel is to take in people exhibiting symptoms but who live with someone considered high-risk, or a person who doesn’t have a home in which to quarantine themselves. (So far, no other American cities or states have followed King County’s lead by buying private property to quarantine or isolate.) “Really the whole idea behind this is to make sure that beds in hospitals aren't being used for recovering quarantine when they could be used for active treatment," Gallagher told me. "We need the hospital to be able to respond to the acute situations rather than the ongoing recovery, move people to places that maybe can't do it at home on their own.”
So how does someone end up at the motel? A few ways. There are the people at risk of developing the illness after having been exposed to the virus, but are not yet showing symptoms. There are others who have tested positive for the virus but are unable to isolate at home. And there will be those who are treated at a hospital and discharged when they no longer require hospitalization but still require isolation.
Once there, patients at the motel (or inside the modular units) can expect twice-daily calls from a trained health professional, the county told me, and one of the calls will focus on what food, water, and other essentials the patient needs. And when food is dropped off, the delivery person will notify the patient that the item has arrived instead of doing an in-person handoff. "No person-to-person contact will take place between the patient and the delivery person," King County communications director Sherry Hamilton said.
The quarantine and isolation will be voluntary but "but if an individual is unwilling to comply, Public Health has the authority to implement mandatory isolation," Hamilton added.
It's a peculiar fact of voluntary health measures: although they ought to alleviate fear, they sometimes do the opposite. The initial voluntary status seemed to most worry those working and living nearby. Mark Scarff, who owns the car dealership next to the motel and has lived in Kent his whole life, first heard about the motel from Mayor Ralph when she called him the morning of Wednesday, March 4. He told me his concerns are more about the community than the immediate impact on his business.
"The employees are scared. We look at this hotel every day. We have free coffee! Who knows who with coronavirus is coming out of the hotel. That’s what’s frustrating!" Scarff said, his voice rising to a panicked pitch. "How are they going to make this secure? I hear they’re going to put a fence around it. A chainlink fence. They’re going to have to get food! The employees come here for free coffee—they're grabbing the cups. My God! It’s scary."
A Change.org petition was launched last week advocating for the county to find a facility in a less populated area—so far more than 8,000 have signed, many of them leaving comments worrying about patients being able to leave the motel and the possibility of the virus spreading in their community.
Although King county is not the first to quarantine patients in a former hotel—(in China this month, 10 patients in Fujian province tragically died when the converted hotel where they'd been moved for quarantine collapsed—a U.S. county buying a motel to quarantine or isolate patients is highly unusual. Local governments have taken similar measures during epidemics when hospitals began to reach capacity. State privacy law allows for governments to use money this way, but it's rare, according to Scott Burris, director of the Center for Public Health Law Research. "The Mayor of Philadelphia took over an estate on the edge of town to serve as a hospital during the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1793," Burris said. There was a recent case in Costa Mesa, California, where a judge stopped the reopening of an old state facility, he added.
When hospitals reached capacity during the 1918 flu pandemic, tents were set up to house patients outdoors, others were lined up in rows at Army bases. While it seems strange to imagine ill people holed up in an old motel, if the pandemic spreads, and hospital beds fill, there could be few options. In Italy, for example, the coronavirus has led to a shortage of hospital beds.
“It's really important that we collectively prepare for the potential that we may have a large number of people who are ill from coronavirus,” said University of Washington affiliate assistant professor Meghan McGinty, who focuses on public health and medical systems. “Our communities need to be thinking about how are we going to accommodate, how are we going to care for all these people? And we can't wait until we have lots of patients, we need to start proactively preparing. And part of that is preparing our hospitals and existing healthcare facilities, and part is thinking creatively about how we house and care for large volumes of patients and what spaces are best able to accommodate people that are ill or people that are well but have been exposed.”
As the threat of the virus comes into focus, anxieties about preparedness and just how far it will spread are playing out around this unassuming motel. For days, those in Kent have heard rumors from their neighbors that the patients will be moving in soon. Since it was purchased, stricter regulations have been issued in Washington, including an outright ban of any group gatherings with more than 250 people. The traffic in front of the motel has started to thin. For now, the motel sits empty, a security officer sitting at the front desk, answering phones and directing all inquiries to the public information officer.
At Kent Bowl, across the street, it's been business as usual. “I'll know it changed when the first person comes through the door with a face mask on,” said Kent Bowl owner Dennis Zaborac. “Right now, we have seen no face masks, and we're full every night with 150 bowlers or so. I expect the media hype and everything, I expect will ultimately affect our business. But we'll survive—we've been around 62 years.”
But practical questions remain.
Mayor Ralph says she’s been reassured that a private ambulance company will be transporting patients to the motel, but Kent first responders would likely be called for medical emergencies. She’s asking for federal support for protective gear for the police department and firefighters, and expenses that could incur from first responders who may require quarantine after exposure. She says she’s received hundreds of calls and emails from concerned constituents.
“My assistant has been on the phone nonstop, all day fielding phone calls. I can't tell you...” she said when we spoke on March 5. “When I went to sleep last night at 1 in the morning, I had 198 emails that I hadn't even looked at yet.”
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