King County Commits $7 Million to Increased Vaccination Efforts, Won’t Change Jail COVID Protocols

by Carolyn Bick

King County will be committing $7 million to ramp up vaccination efforts to prevent against COVID-19, with two high-volume vaccination sites slated for South King County in the near future, King County Executive Dow Constantine announced in a public health briefing on Jan. 8.

In the Public Health – Seattle & King County (PHSKC) briefing, Constantine explained that officials decided to place the vaccination sites in South King County based on the sustained high case rate in that region of the county. He also said that the increased vaccination efforts will include mobile vaccination sites, and are meant to complement the state’s vaccination efforts. These efforts will follow the guidelines laid out in the press conference the Washington State Department of Health (DOH) held on Jan. 6, which means, broadly, that high-risk workers in long term care and healthcare settings and people 65 years and older who live in congregate settings will be offered the vaccine first.

PHSKC Dir. Patty Hayes said that the two South King County vaccination sites will be implemented in a phased approach starting on Feb. 1, but that the mobile units will be available as soon as possible. However, she implored people not to gather and to keep wearing masks, as new case rates in King County have steadily sat at more than 400 new cases per day since December, according to the PHSKC dashboard.

The Emerald also asked officials in the briefing what PHSKC health officials working in the downtown Seattle King County Jail will be doing differently, given the most recent outbreak of the disease among four people on Jan. 2, the news of which the Emerald broke on Jan. 4. This is the second outbreak in the exact same unit that saw the first infection and transmission within the jail itself in early December. In that outbreak, 16 people became infected.

However, according to the response the jail’s communications specialist gave the Emerald for the story about the early December outbreak, it appears that public health officials did not direct jail staff to change any anti-COVID measures within the jail between the early December outbreak and the Jan. 2 outbreak. 

Nor, it seems, will they now.

Instead of answering the Emerald’s question directly, Constantine compared the two outbreaks to other incarceration facilities across the country, saying that since the beginning of the pandemic, the County has “moved to create a safer environment in the jails” by instituting new booking restrictions and “spreading people out, particularly those who are the most vulnerable people in high-risk populations.”

“We had managed to avoid widespread outbreaks, unlike almost every other detention system in the country,” Constantine said, before going on to mention the two outbreaks the Emerald asked about. However, he did not acknowledge that these outbreaks happened in the same unit, despite the Emerald including that information in its question. He said that PHSKC “quickly wrestled” the December outbreak under control, and that the “small flare-up” in early January is under control.

“The testing protocols, the distancing protocols, the cleaning protocols that we put in place at the start have proved tremendously effective, and you can see that if you just compare our record against almost anyone else’s in the country,” Constantine said.

Hayes echoed much of what Constantine said, adding that “we know COVID is going to show up in these facilities,” which is why jail staff tests each person who gets booked in.

“In addition, we know there is a ton of community spread of COVID, so it’s not [realistic] to think that the staff is not going to, at some point, contract COVID,” Hayes said. “We are aggressively managing this.”

Hayes also did not acknowledge that the newest jail outbreak occurred in the same unit, nor that it appeared to mark the second instance of infection and transmission within the jail itself. She also did not outline or mention any new protocols PHSKC plans to implement within the jail to try to prevent yet another outbreak of COVID-19.

Carolyn Bick is a journalist and photographer based in South Seattle. You can reach them here, and check out more of their work here and here.

Featured image is from Wikimedia Commons by the U.S. Secretary of Defense.