Coronavirus taking toll on King County public health staff, funds ahead of possible outbreak

Coronavirus cases surged again worldwide, to more than 44,000 cases as of Tuesday.

It has local health officials saying the chance of an outbreak in the U.S. is increasing, but staffing and funding is stretched so thinly, they’re concerned about preparedness.

The Seattle and King County Public Health Officer, Dr. Jeff Duchin, spoke with the King County Council Monday.

“It is tremendously taxing. Staff is very stressed at this point,” Duchin said during the presentation.

Though there are no cases in King County, he said the isolation and quarantine public health has needed to oversee has taken a toll on their resources.

“Already, this is exceeding our epidemiological capacity,” he said, adding they’ve had to pull staff like nurses and disease investigators from other programs, “because the baseline staffing was not sufficient.”

Public Health is monitoring about 250 people in self-quarantine who've been to China in the last 14 days. Duchin said the number of travelers reported to them through Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) is fluid.

“We’re stretched already with the large number of people we've had to isolate, that we've had to monitor in quarantine,” Duchin said.

“CDC has said it’s preparing as if it’s the next pandemic,” Duchin said. “This period now will be seen as a very good opportunity for us to have been able to prepare ourselves for something that may or not occur. But it's looking increasingly likely,” he said.

It has people in King County also worried about the level of preparedness local health systems are capable of.

“It's kind of freaky they're not fully staffed,; don't have the funds for that,” said Jose Zermeno, who lives in Renton.

The CDC is also recommending businesses plan for a possible outbreak, saying on its website, "All employers need to consider how best to decrease the spread of acute respiratory illness, and lower the impact of 2019-nCoV in their workplace in the event of an outbreak in the US.”

Public Health said you should also plan for the “what if.”

“Just thinking through some scenarios,” Duchin said. “Social distancing, can you telecommute. There is also an emergency supply kit that’s always good to have,” he said.

“We don't know if these things are going to happen but just having some awareness of the types of things you might face if we have a lot of illness -, that would be very helpful,” Duchin said.

It’s advice that's catching people off guard.

“ I“I don't,... I don't have a plan,” Zermeno said.

“It sounds a little like an apocalypse type thing, like you have to prepare yourself,” said Erica Odon, who was also in the Renton area Tuesday. “It’s definitely starting a conversation for sure,” she said.

It has King County Council members calling for more funding from the state.

“It is very alarming,” said Kathy Lambert, District 3 Councilmember. Lambert is also a member of the Board of Directors of Public Health Seattle and King County.

“We do not have enough money coming from the state for foundational public health,” she said.

The CDC and Public Health say right now the immediate health risk from 2019-nCoV is considered low.

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