After the island’s fire chief gave the go-ahead last weekend, the local nonprofit VashonBePrepared began working on plans to carry out objectives to help the island respond to the coronavirus pandemic.
The six objectives range from helping medical providers get needed equipment to helping businesses recover from economic loss, according to a document provided by the organization, which is set up to prepare and respond to incidents ranging from snowstorms to terrorist attacks.
Rick Wallace, VashonBePrepared’s vice president, believes the COVID-19 is a far different situation than what his nonprofit typically responds to.
“In a really bad earthquake, we estimate we would have less than 100 casualties, maybe way less,” he said. “In the case of a pandemic, the percentage of people, who, in the end, will be infected on Vashon, could be quite high. We can’t predict it but it’s going to be more than 100 people, almost certainly.”
Given the unique nature of the COVID-19 outbreak, VashonBePrepared has had to “adapt and optimize” its operations to the situation, Wallace said.
“What we’re doing now is we’re taking all the work we’ve done over the years in terms of how to respond to an emergency and we’re mapping that work to a very different situation than we normally try to plan for,” he said. “Every emergency is different and it;s built into our process that we assess what’s going on and we design our management of the emergency and how we respond to it based on the circumstances. We do not try to a cookie cutter on the emergency.”
The Vashon EOC, the members of which are recruited by VashonBePrepared, was activated on March 11. But over the last weekend, objectives for the two groups to follow were approved last weekend by the incident commander, Vashon Fire and Rescue Chief Charlie Krimmert.
Wallace praised the approval of these objectives.
“This document is the first step in implementing an emergency response of any kind,” he said. “You have to set objectives. If you don’t set objectives, everyone’s running around and not organized and not purposeful.”
The planning, which began last weekend and continued into this week, came as an increasing number of island businesses and organizations announced they were suspending activities in light of coronavirus, which has infected and killed thousands worldwide since December. Here in King County, considered the epicenter of the virus in the U.S., Public Health – Seattle & King County has reported 588 confirmed cases and 46 deaths.
Last week, the first positive case became known when the Vashon-based company Sawbones, a subsidiary of Pacific Research Laboratories, Inc., announced a temporary worker who lives off island had tested positive for COVID-19. As a result, 11 people at the company who shared a ride with the Tacoma man or worked closely with him went into a 14-day quarantine.
The rapidly evolving environment is reason enough for an organization like VashonBePrepared to be involved, Wallace said.
“We hope that the infection will not get very serious but all signs indicate that we will have a very serious level of infection everywhere in the Puget Sound area,” Wallace said, noting Gov. Jay Inslee’s recent decision to close down schools, including Harbor School and VISD, until April 24. “You can see it’s having an effect on the island. So this isn’t just about dealing with the virus itself; a lot of it is dealing with the effect of the virus on our community.”
The six objectives are: setting up two task forces, one to help islanders in self quarantine and another to help businesses stay operational and recover any losses; providing island medical provider needs; publishing “daily situation reports” and developing a public communications plan.
Each of the six objectives do not have a time frame to be completed, according to Wallace.
“Until we design the strategies and tactics for each one, it would be inappropriate for us to set a time goal,” he said, “because we haven’t done the planning for how they’ll actually be accomplished.”
He emphasized that VashonBePrepared itself is not set up to provide medical care to people, though it is a coordinating arm for entities on the island that do.
“We’re not doctors. We’re not a clinic. We don’t drive ambulances. We’re here as a support for the community,” Wallace said. “We know that it is crucial that our island organizations and businesses come out the other side of this in healthy financial condition, not just avoid getting the virus.”
He continued, “it’s important for me to emphasize we’re not some kind of silver bullet. We’re just going to do the best we can to mitigate the social and economic impacts on the island.”
The approval of objectives by Vashon Island Fire & Rescue Chief Charlie Krimmert came a few days after he activated the Emergency Operations Center — members of which are recruited by VashonBePrepared.
The EOC has been activated at an enhanced monitoring level and members are working virtually to avoid the possibility of getting one another sick, Wallace said.
Krimmert said it was crucial for him to ask the EOC to activate because “we can see the growing number (of cases) and the growing concern.”
“So we’re just trying to be proactive,” he said.
It’s not just the medical aspect of the coronavirus pandemic that worries the fire chief; it’s the business side as well.
“Once the outbreak is under control … that’s when the businesses start to rebuild themselves — that could take an even longer period of time,” Krimmert said.
Wallace predicts there will be a high number of islanders who self-quarantine in response to coronavirus.
“We will develop a plan by pulling together community organizations to make a plan to help people who are stuck in their houses,” said Wallace, who noted VashonBePrepared’s motto, “neighbors helping neighbors.”
Island resident Erin Simmons, who is self-quarantining with her husband, wrote a message on a local Facebook group, warning others that “things are set to get so, so bad if we do not start to self quarantine and be ‘socially distant’ as they are recommending.”
“Please take action now and we can save many lives, she wrote.
In an interview via email, Simmons said she was not aware of VashonBePrepared’s plans, but wanted to know more. She and her husband are able to work from home, are trying to limit outings and interactions with others.
Simmons said they did a grocery store run “before things really wound up” and have purchased from retailers, like Costco and Target, online.
Wallace also talked about how VashonBePrepared has helped medical provider needs, saying it has submitted a resource request on behalf of two island clinics, Neighborcare Health and Vashon Natural Medicine, for protective clothing professionals can wear while treating patients potentially infected with coronavirus.
Wallace said those items are particularly important given what he says is a shortage of them throughout the state, as the medical community has dealt with a high number of COVID-19 cases.
“I think organizations have stock in the state, but you couldn’t buy it from a distributor now,” Wallace said. “Even if they had stock now of essential supplies, they might run out. We’re trying to work ahead and help them. We don’t know if we can get this stuff for them, but we can help them ask.”
Fire district COVID-19 measures
The fire district chief said he has made sure a number of proactive measures are in place to protect his employees against anyone who may have COVID-19. This includes providing emergency medical technicians with protective clothing — including a mask, eye protection and gloves — and sending one person to a possible coronavirus incident and not three or four.
“If someone is infected, they can contaminate any first responder, so we have to be very strategic about exposing them to potentially infected people because we have so many,” Krimmert said.
So far, there have only been two suspected cases that required the individuals to be transported off-island, according to Krimmert.
“Unless it’s reported back to us, we don’t know [if they have coronavirus],” he said.
Krimmert is keen on keeping district personnel safe not just to protect against symptoms of the highly contagious coronavirus, but the fact that VIF&R is such a small force. The city of Kirkland — where the first U.S. coronavirus death occurred and many other confirmed cases have been reported — saw more than 20 emergency responders in quarantine earlier this month.
“If my whole force is in quarantine, when you dial 911, there’s nobody coming,” Krimmert said. “I’m not anticipating the whole force (will go into quarantine), but I could, in theory, have a crew exposed, which would be a quarter of our force. That’s going to have serious ramifications.”