WA health departments already ‘burning’ through money to prepare for COVID-19

VIDEO: More than $500,000 spent each week on coronavirus response in Washington

SEATTLE — More than a half-million dollars is being spent every week on the coronavirus response in Washington state – at least.

But health officials say resources are stretched thin and the situation could get even more dire. The Centers for Disease Control announced Tuesday morning that it expects there will be a COVID-19 outbreak in the United States.

“Ultimately, we expect we will see community spread in this country," said Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.

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"It's not so much a question of if this will happen anymore, but rather more of a question of exactly when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illness," she said.

In Washington state, the Department of Health said it’s spending $51,000 a day on the coronavirus response. As of Tuesday, it had spent a total of $1.74 million since the federally-mandated response activated on January 21.

A spokesperson said some of that cost was already budgeted for in staff pay, though employees’ workloads were redirected to handle the coronavirus response. The DOH said about $629,000 was spent on nonbudgeted costs like equipment, food and travel.

One example of equipment-related costs is the quarantine site in Shoreline. Four RVs near the state Department of Health labs are ready to house people for certain coronavirus quarantine situations. The state has emphasized it would only be for healthy people who cannot self-quarantine at home and it’s currently empty.

The site needs to be monitored, and the Washington State Patrol is providing 24/7 security for the site to protect the equipment, which is another cost.

Seattle & King County Public Health said it’s also spending hundreds of thousands weekly on the response.

“We’re burning through about $200,000 a week right now in staffing and assistance to folks that have to be monitored and other expenses,” said Patty Hayes, the director of Seattle & King County Public Health on February 20.

Its work includes monitoring some of more than 700 people across the state who’ve recently traveled to China and are now in self-quarantine.

On Feb. 11, Dr. Jeff Duchin, with Public Health, said at a King County Council meeting, “Already, this is exceeding our epidemiological capacity,” and, “It is tremendously taxing. Staff is very stressed at this point.”

King County’s new chair of the Board of Health, Joe McDermott, said the necessary money will be spent to prepare for the increased risk announced by the CDC.

“Frankly, money be damned at this point in time, we are doing the work because that is what public health is,” McDermott said on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Washington Sen. Patty Murray and other lawmakers grilled the secretary of health and human services, Alex Azar, in D.C. on Tuesday. Lawmakers expressed deep concern about how prepared the United States is for a coronavirus outbreak.

Murray: Masks, protective suits, ventilators, anything, is that stockpiled and ready?

Azar: So we do have in the strategic national stockpile, we have ventilators, we have masks.

Murray: Enough?

Azar: Well of course not.

On Wednesday morning, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) released a proposal for $8.5 billion in emergency funding to fight the spread of coronavirus in the U.S. This is in addition to the $2.5 billion in emergency funding the White House requested Monday to address the virus threat.

“Congress must act swiftly to confront the threat of this global health crisis,” said Schumer.

“Americans need to know that their government is prepared to handle the situation before coronavirus spreads to our communities. I urge the Congress to move quickly on this proposal. Time is of the essence,” Schumer said.

Seattle & King County Public Health and the state DOH both have people in Washington D.C., to ask for funding and to try and make sure federal money makes it into local hands.