Data & Resources


Published on Jun 09, 2020

They got game

Contact: Brian Daskam

The pandemic arrived in Spokane on February 19, a month after the first confirmed coronavirus case in the United States (a Snohomish County resident infected while visiting relatives in Wuhan, China) and a month before the first residents of Washington’s second-largest city would test positive for Covid-19. A day earlier, Mayor Nadine Woodward had received a phone call from the US Department of Health & Human Services, alerting the city that four Covid-19-positive passengers evacuated from the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan were being flown to her city. The patients were slated for treatment at Spokane’s Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center, one of 10 hospitals in the country that had received $2.1 million from Congress following the 2014 Ebola outbreak to create a regional special pathogens unit to treat patients with highly infectious diseases.

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“That’s when it started for us,” says Spokane Communications Director Brian Coddington, one of four community members who traveled to Atlanta for pandemic response training at Emory University, across the street from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, after Sacred Heart was earmarked as a pandemic critical care facility for patients from Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. “The mayor’s office started to receive questions: What are they doing here? How will this impact our community? That got the ball rolling for us starting to think about coronavirus and what that might mean for Spokane and the region.”

By late February, after Governor Jay Inslee had declared a state of emergency in the wake of a Covid-19 outbreak at a Kirkland nursing home that infected dozens of patients, caregivers, and first responders, Woodward quietly directed her cabinet to assemble a Covid-19 emergency response team for Spokane, led by the city’s fire chief, Brian Schaeffer. As it happens, Spokane had an unusually deep pool of crisis management talent already on staff, even beyond Coddington and the others who had received pandemic response training at the CDC. Amber Richards, the city’s civil service director and a recent hire from the City of Bainbridge Island, was a US Air Force veteran with special training and had developed that community’s emergency response plan. Eric Finch, Spokane’s chief innovation & technology officer, had nearly three decades of military experience in strategic disaster response planning and management, including multiple deployments in the aftermath of earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, riots, and wildfires.

“On the military side, we have a great capacity to plan and to structure operations centers. That’s what we do,” says Finch. “The planning aspect for an emergency is not a normal skill for a city worker....Within a medium-size or a smaller city, you need to train your senior staff to help you run an emergency.”

To that end, since Richards’s arrival in 2018, Finch had been developing an emergency operations management playbook for Spokane, flowcharting the roles, policies, and procedures city staff would follow in response to a local or regional crisis. A draft of that document, published last fall, was adopted by Woodward, a former television news anchor with no prior governing experience, after she took office in January. Within six weeks, Finch’s playbook became the blueprint the city would rely on to respond to the pandemic and connect to a regional response effort. Improvisation was required, since the plan had been developed based on experience gleaned from prior emergencies, like a 2015 windstorm that knocked out power to 220 households for 15 days, and hypothetical calamities, like the downtown derailment of a freight train hauling hazardous chemicals.

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“We thought that would be one of the worst-case scenarios for the city,” explains Finch. “Sadly, our paragraph on pandemic was basically, ‘Hey, we need to plan for this.’ It was highlighted in yellow, but we didn’t have the time or the resources to develop anything on pandemics.”

By the end of the first week of March, Spokane’s emergency response team was fully operational, establishing teams and protocols to tackle an ever-evolving suite of problems: how to shelter and feed the city’s homeless population while maintaining CDC social distancing requirements; how to provide child care, meals, and internet access for families impacted by school closures; how to procure personal protective gear for first responders and city staffers; and more. By March 14, schools began closing statewide by order of the governor, and Spokane’s first three cases of Covid-19 had been diagnosed.

The next day, the governor ordered a statewide closure of restaurants and bars, a body blow for Spokane, where the service, hospitality, and retail industry account for 60 percent of all jobs. Finally, on March 16, at a news conference hosted by the Spokane County Department of Emergency Management, Woodward, with county commissioners and the mayor of the City of Spokane Valley (joined later by mayors of seven other area cities), signed emergency declarations establishing a Regional Inland Covid-19 Incident Response Team (IRT) that would subsume the work and leadership of the City of Spokane’s effort.

“We stood up a management team within city hall, and within my cabinet we were ready to declare an emergency early,” says Woodward, who as a result of the declaration was given authority to cancel public events, close public spaces, and redirect city resources to respond to the crisis. “But I realized that as a new leader, I needed buy-in from the county and all the other cities in the county, so we brought them all on board.”

 

I realized that as a new leader, I needed buy-in from the county and all the other cities in the county, so we brought them all on board.
– Nadine Woodward, Spokane Mayor

As command was transferred from a small room at city hall to the city’s Fire Training Center, jump-starting the multijurisdictional effort proved to be daunting task, at least initially.

“When we tried to put ourselves together as a region, there was a bit of wailing and gnashing of teeth,” says Finch, who in addition to being the IRT’s co-incident commander also serves as Spokane’s representative on the team. “As we put together ourselves, the county, and the health district...it was a little painful at first.”

As was the city’s transition to a virtual workplace. Three days after Woodward and regional leaders declared an emergency, Spokane closed its city hall to the public, and 400 employees—roughly 80 percent of the administrative staff—were required to work from home. Making that happen meant suspending labyrinthine labor management rules and working with vendors to replace outdated equipment, as well as establishing protocols for file sharing and videoconferencing. After area workplaces and schools closed, city staff noticed that residents without internet access were parking outside public libraries to avail themselves and their children of free Wi-Fi, so Spokane made sure to keep those wireless networks running 24/7.

“Obviously that is not optimal, so we look at this in terms of what is it showing us about our digital divide, and how are we going to get better with that for our citizens,” says Finch. “We are learning something every day.”

When social distancing measures to deter the spread of coronavirus were enacted, potentially displacing hundreds of Spokane’s most vulnerable citizens from crowded shelters, the city repurposed its central library, which had been closed for a scheduled renovation, into an emergency shelter, clearing the stacks of shelves and books to create dormitory space. And when the city learned it would cost $1,900 a day to rent portable showers for the library’s new residents, a Spokane Parks & Recreation Department plumber, with help from city employees, converted a library restroom into a 4-stall shower room, a $6,000 investment that saved the city $50,000.

Figuring out how to feed Spokane’s homeless population, estimated at more than 1,300—along with potentially thousands of newly unemployed residents visiting food banks for the first time due to the pandemic—was a particularly thorny problem. According to Amber Richards, who assumed a role as the IRT’s operations section chief, the pandemic has affected food security unlike, say, a hurricane, which might disrupt the food supply chain. Instead, with the economic impact of Covid-19 closures, “there is a shift in how people acquire food,” she explains. “They may not have the resources to go and purchase food at the grocery store anymore, so there’s much more drain on the food banks and the food pantries. Our role in this response: we’re not in the business of distributing food to the public. Our job in the near term is to support existing systems.”

Because local restaurants that typically donated excess produce to food banks have reduced service, for example, food banks were forced to scramble to purchase inventory on the open retail market, dramatically increasing costs. To remedy that situation, Richards hopes to connect restaurant supply purveyors with food banks, creating a new market for the vendors and restocking food banks at below-market-rate prices.

The city likewise had to rethink its purchasing practices—especially when it came to restocking PPE for first responders and cleaning products to sanitize equipment and workspaces—given the potential impact on local, regional, and national supply chains.

“If we start going out and saying we have to suck in all of this supply so that we can provide for our community, that can trigger a total panic in the system,” Richards explains. “It becomes a balance of: how do we ensure that we’re providing that level of service and think far enough ahead, but also not cause an undue amount of panic that makes the problem worse?”

To answer, or even to know to ask, those kinds of questions, Richards draws on a decade of emergency response training, even though she says she’s never seen anything like this pandemic—for the first time in the nation’s history, all 50 states have simultaneously issued disaster declarations. She thought she had left her emergency management career behind two years ago when she came to Spokane, but Richards is glad to be able to add her expertise.

“The City of Bainbridge Island really invested in my training—that was taxpayer dollars,” she says. “I feel grateful for being able to contribute those skills and reinvest what another community in Washington invested in me.”

Another City of Spokane leader who is relishing the opportunity to resuscitate a longtime professional skill set is Nadine Woodward. As she steers Spokane’s pandemic response, at 3 pm every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday Woodward visits the studio at CityCable 5 to tape a Covid-19 update, a two-minute segment she reads with the poise and practiced delivery she honed over 30 years of nightly news broadcasts. The mayor recaps the latest pandemic news and events from the city’s perspective, but she also makes a point to offer measured reassurance to the public. On April 29, Woodward opened her broadcast this way:

Let me start by acknowledging the wide range of emotions in our community and among our friends and loved ones. This is unprecedented for many generations, and although we are contributing in a meaningful way to protect our community, that push is taking a toll on our daily lives. All those feelings are understandable and expected as we navigate together a situation with many unknowns.

After outlining how the City of Spokane was working with its regional partners on a process to slowly reopen the local economy, Woodward looked resolutely into the camera before signing off:

We have made tremendous progress over the past few weeks. Now is the time to lean into that. It’s the right thing to do for our friends, loved ones, and strangers, and it’s the quickest way back to public life. Your resilience and commitment is extremely impressive. Thank you for being there time and time again for those who need you most. We have come too far to give up now. Your community needs you now, more than ever.

The mayor and council of Oak Harbor, a Puget Sound city of 22,000 that’s home to Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, have been broadcasting a similar message to the public, but in a different way, thanks to the savvy of the city’s new public information officer (PIO), Sabrina Combs. In another example of pandemic kismet, her first day of work—March 16—happened to coincide with the onset of the governor’s Stay Home/Stay Healthy order, also the day the City of Oak Harbor closed city hall to the public and sent all nonessential employees home.

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Upon hearing that news, Combs, a 12-year City of Bothell veteran, phoned Emma House, Oak Harbor’s human resources director, double-checking whether she still had a job to show up for at all.

“I told her, ‘Everyone else is being told not to come into work. We need you,’” House recalls. “‘Grab a computer and go. It’s critical to have someone help us communicate.’”

Oak Harbor had never had a PIO on staff. The hire had been made to fill a perceived void in expertise, coincidentally just before the crisis hit.

“Our communication was not strong,” says House. “That has been a learning point for us, to be able to communicate in ways we never thought we would. That took a strong PIO who knew all of the tools.”

 

Our communication was not strong. That has been a learning point for us, to be able to communicate in ways we never thought we would. That took a strong PIO who knew all of the tools.
– Emma House, Oak Harbor HR Director

In her longtime role as Bothell’s sustainability and projects coordinator, Combs nurtured an interest in community outreach work that led her to pursue a master’s degree in strategic communications at Washington State University in 2016. At the time, she was also serving as public information officer for Bothell’s emergency response team, learning how to broker information between multiple agencies, jurisdictions, and the public during fast-evolving situations that played out in realistic training scenarios, from high school shootings to natural disasters.

“I realized I loved communications,” says Combs. “I liked the work of engaging with the community and helping people understand. I had worked with political campaigns before, and that fit well with this.”

For Oak Harbor Mayor Bob Severns, a title insurance and escrow specialist who settled in the bucolic city 45 years ago, right out of college, and never left, Combs was a godsend.

Having just been elected to a second term, Severns had decided to take a well-earned vacation in February. He was relaxing in Waikiki late that month when he noticed something odd: people wearing medical face masks while strolling on the beach. He returned from paradise to Sea-Tac Airport just as Kirkland emerged as a national flash point in a global pandemic.

“It was a real surprise to me,” says Severns. “I didn’t realize the magnitude of this, and I was trying to understand it all.”

Back in Oak Harbor, he was relieved that Ray Merrill, the city’s fire chief and director of emergency response, had the situation under control. Ever since the MERS and Ebola outbreaks, Merrill’s team had been drilling annually on infectious disease protocols, and the protocols that would be used in managing an outbreak were outlined in the city’s emergency management plan. Merrill himself was relieved that the department had stored personal protective equipment for the city’s first responders, and one of his captains also served as liaison between the city’s health care system and Island County Health Department, and was thus receiving the latest information about the local impacts of the pandemic.

On March 12, Severns traveled to Washington, DC, for an annual meeting at the Pentagon to discuss the needs of Naval Air Station Whidbey Island. As his city prepared to put itself under lockdown to comply with the Stay Home/Stay Healthy order, at the Pentagon few people were wearing face masks or practicing social distancing. The sight of some 22,000 employees—roughly the population of his home city—working in an enclosed space, while a highly infectious virus raged, reinforced the need for Oak Harbor to engage with its populace about the pandemic.

Back in his office on March 16, with half of the city’s 173 employees at home, the first thing Severns did was call a meeting with the city’s new PIO.

“A half hour after I set up my computer, the mayor came in and said, ‘I need a quick meeting,’” Combs recalls. “He talked about what we knew was going on, asked for my recommendations for communications, and what I realized right off the bat was that the city didn’t have a web page or even a banner ad giving people a quick resource to go to.”

Gathering information from city department heads, as well as state, county, and federal agencies, Combs created a one-page clearinghouse of Covid-19 information: updates on parks closures, impacts on city services, tips about social distancing guidelines, and links to local, state, and federal assistance programs for everything from unemployment claims to mental health providers. She began receiving daily briefings from Island County Public Health and the county emergency response team; together with other Island County PIOs, she participated in an information distribution chain. When the city’s public schools closed on her second day on the job (displacing 6,200 students from 10 sites), Combs also reached out to her peer at Oak Harbor Public Schools to disseminate information about food distribution, since 40 percent of the school district’s student population received free or reduced-rate lunch.

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Combs made a point to temper the sober information she pushed out on the city’s Facebook page with good vibes, in one post reminding people to practice handwashing and social distancing via a montage of M*A*S*H video clips. In early May, she created a meme with the city’s light-saber-wielding mayor standing against a virtual Star Wars movie poster backdrop, saying, “May the Fourth be with you! Stay home, stay healthy!”

“I was using that to stay on top of the pulse of the community,” Combs explains. “I was trying to add good news of the day, lighthearted stuff, because people are overwhelmed.”

When, in response to orders requiring cities to limit public meetings to essential business, the city council rescheduled its weekly meetings as monthly meetings live-streamed citywide via Zoom and Ring Central, Combs was touched that for the mayor and councilmembers, “essential business” included taking time to individually address the unseen audience with messages of encouragement. After one meeting on April 7, Combs coordinated with the mayor and three councilmembers to create a video love letter to the community, broadcast on Facebook.

Mayor Severns, from his desk at city hall, talked about his budding walking habit (“I’m trying to do five miles each day”) and his hope that when he returned home, a batch of treats would have been delivered by Oak Harbor’s mayor pro tem, Beth Munns. Sure enough, Munns greeted locals from her kitchen while baking cookies for neighbors, as well as from her sewing machine, where she busied herself making masks for nearby Navy personnel. Seated in his backyard, Councilmember Jeff Mack discussed his progress on gardening and woodworking projects around the house. And Councilmember Jim Woessner, from his home office, echoed everyone’s sentiments in thanking the entire community for doing their part, closing with, “So hang in there: we’re a strong community, and together, we’ve got this.”

All in all, Combs’s skills in outreach and engagement seem to have arrived at an ideal time for Oak Harbor, and the impact of her work has been immediate and broad. Still, she says what matters most to her are the regular calls she gets from the city’s police chief, fire chief, mayor, department heads, and socially distant municipal government peers scattered across the city.

“People check in on me and ask, ‘Are you doing OK?’” she says. “Sure, it’s really stressful. I have felt honored to serve a community like this, with such a great heart, and a leadership team that takes into account what the community needs and is so supportive of the job you have to do.”

While Combs is still getting adjusted to a challenging job made even more so by Covid-19, the role is one that she—like her colleagues in Oak Harbor, their peers in Spokane, and city leaders across the state—has been training for all her life.

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