King County Council Town Hall Reveals Priorities Around Vaccines, Housing, and Public Safety

  Community Interest

by Devin Chicras

On March 3, a virtual town hall meeting was held for the Skyway-West Hill community which featured King County Councilmembers Girmay Zahilay, Joe McDermott, Jeanne Kohl-Welles, and Rod Dembowski, as well as Patty Hayes, Director of Public Health Seattle-King County (PHSKC).

Video of March 3, 2021 virtual Town Hall with King County Councilmembers Girmay Zahilay, Joe McDermott, Jeanne Kohl-Welles, and Rod Dembowski.

Councilmember Girmay Zahilay’s Priorities for 2021

King County Councilmember for District 2 (which includes unincorporated Skyway-West Hill), Girmay Zahilay, began the virtual meeting by explaining his current priorities which include responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and rolling out vaccines, as well as focusing on food assistance and housing for those impacted, and restoring our economy.

They also include the current redistricting efforts, the Best Starts for Kids program, and Health Through Housing, “…a tax that passed this past year which will give us the revenue to buy up hotels and motels around King County to provide housing for a significant percentage of our most chronically unhoused populations in King County.”

As chair of King County Council’s Law and Justice Committee, the councilmember recalled that voters in King County passed amendments to the King County Charter last year, “which will allow us to create a new vision for public safety in King County”.

Councilmember Zahilay is also focused on South Seattle and Skyway-West Hill, and recounted recent budget wins: “We got some major wins this past year for those communities in the southern end of my district around a community center, around millions of dollars for affordable housing, dramatically expanding public transportation in these areas that are transportation deserts, and so this year will be a lot of implementation.” He added, “We got the wins last year, it’s time to implement now.”

The council member also identified housing and rental assistance as top priorities for his office: “we’re trying to do an assessment of where do we have more underutilized, publicly owned land and buildings that we can better use to transfer to community organizations for things like housing and facilities”.

The Current State of Vaccination Efforts in King County

Patty Hayes, Director of Public Health Seattle-King County (PHSKC), shared that King County had just been named one of the top counties in the nation in terms of pandemic response.

“As I look back a year ago, when I got the call for the cases [at] Life Care Center [nursing home in Kirkland which became the “U.S. epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak” in early 2020], it obviously changed my life, but what I was so proud of is [how] we rallied. We had the Centers for Disease Control out here within 48 hours. A team came here to help and we wrote the protocols for working on COVID in nursing homes right from King County.”

Director Hayes expressed excitement at the federal approval of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine but stated that while it’s being shipped all around the country, doses are so limited that the single shipment allocated to Washington State might not even reach King County.

PHSKC’s goal is to vaccinate at least 1.26 million adults in King County, starting with those in the highest-risk categories. This represents 70% of all adults, which would help ensure “herd immunity”.

Right now, there is no vaccine approved for youth and children under the age of 16, but manufacturers are currently doing tests and more should be known by this summer.

Director Hayes also clarified the division of labor between Washington State Department of Health (the “lead entity”) and Public Health Seattle-King County (“the local coordinator”).

Washington DOH is in charge of deciding where supplies of vaccine should go and how is prioritized, reporting data, and conducting a public information campaign. PHSKC works with partners to develop recommendations to the state on ways to improve the process locally and best reach priority populations, as well as sharing information relevant to our communities and building relationships and trust within them.

The current “multi-modal vaccine delivery” approach includes distributing vaccine via high-capacity hospitals, clinics, and outpatient providers as well as pharmacies, community vaccination hubs, and having mobile vaccine teams to service shelters, nursing homes, and homebound seniors.

As of March 1, we’ve had 341,532 people in King County receive at least one dose of the vaccine. 63.9% of KC residents aged 75 years or older have received at least one dose.

Doses remain the constraint. President Biden has promised to increase our allocation, but Director Hayes does not think we’ll see a big bump until April, and adds that this is part of the challenge with adding school employees and childcare workers to the priority list right now, because we still have 116,000 folks 65+ around the county in the 1b1 category to get vaccinated – and that’s happening while school employees and childcare workers are being added to the list. Governor Inslee is also looking to open up what’s called 1b2 which are essential workers on the frontline.

Director Hayes stated, “We know the impact of the pandemic has been highest on Hispanic/Latinx and Black/African American community as well as the Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities and American Indian and Native Alaskan communities. We’re looking at how well we’re doing getting the vaccine into the arms of those who are very much in need of it.” She added, “When we see that Black or African American community members are under 35% vaccinated, then we’re having conversations about what community-based organizations we can work with to spread information, and do we have sites accessible. Are we making it so that they can succeed in getting registered? That’s how we use this data.”

PHSKC has hired community navigators from within the communities they’ll serve, and are translating information into 32 different languages.

Director Hayes then displayed a map of current vaccination efforts in King County, and announced that 391 providers are now ready to go (green dots on the map) but only 24 of them got vaccines delivered last week, underscoring how dire the supply is. Open partnership sites (red dots) can handle higher volumes of doses. For instance Kent and Auburn sites (which are in partnership with King County Department of Community and Human Services) can administer up to 2,000 doses per day, but they only have enough for about 500 arms per day. PHSKC works with community-based organizations to encourage hard-to-reach communities to visit the Renton site (in partnership with Kaiser Permanente). A downtown and a north Seattle location will be opening up as doses increase.

The green areas represent where mobile vaccination efforts for high-risk congregate settings have been focused, and the yellow area will start this week, which includes Rainier Beach, Skyway-West Hill, and Renton). The blue area is planned for later.

While some people have had issues with the Washington State COVID-19 assistance hotline (1-800-525-0127, available Monday from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Tuesday through Sunday from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.), they are increasing staffing to improve the service. There is also a King County COVID-19 call center (206-477-3977, available 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.) that can answer questions and provide language interpretation.

Director Hayes then took questions from the audience:

Audience question: Why is it so difficult to schedule vaccination appointments? Why is there no centralized system for scheduling? How are we helping folks who can’t travel to sites or access the internet or spend hours trying to get an appointment?

Director Hayes: “We have to acknowledge that in our country we do not have a coordinated health care system and that public health has been underfunded for so many years. The national public health office that responds to pandemics was defunded four years ago and dismantled, and so the preparedness for a pandemic was undermined. There was no ability for the federal government to set the kind of standards that we would expect where you would have coordination of the system, where you would have centralized national arrangements we would expect. The state has set up their systems but it has not been coordinated with the health care system which – any of us trying to maneuver through the health care system know that one doctor doesn’t necessarily talk to another doctor, the IT systems are not the same, so it’s just created a problem where there isn’t a centralized appointment place where we could reach Safeway pharmacy as well as a mass vaccination site, etc.”

“So what my team’s been doing here in King County for our strategy with older adults, has been working with organizations that work with older adults and particularly we are beginning to identify every homebound adult in King County so we have access to them to help get them their vaccine.”

“For folks who are technology challenged, the state has a call center that can help, and we are working to increase our call center so that it has more capacity to be able to do what has been a problem at the state level – to be able to sort through how do you make an appointment, where are those appointments. The major problem right now that people are having is they’re calling around and the appointments are all full. As appointments open up and vaccine increases in April, you’ll see there’s more availability at your local pharmacy and health care providers.”

Audience question: There are many people outside KC getting vaccines, cutting in front of others by falsifying eligibility. What is being done?

Director Hayes: “It’s frustrating, I get calls on this almost every day. This is a trust based system, that approach is reinforced by the federal government. We’ve done some analysis and what we’ve found is that upwards of 10% of King County residents are getting their vaccinations elsewhere, but we also know because we are a healthcare hub and there are those from outside the county that are getting their vaccinations here, so it’s likely a wash – but it’s hard to track. Regarding jumping in line – we have an agreement with our providers in the King County Vaccination Partnership that contains equity principles, which means they don’t allow folks to jump in line, but that doesn’t prevent someone from lying to get in. If teachers are prioritized and you say you’re a teacher, no one is going to demand proof.”

Audience question: What about the disproportionality in who is getting COVID? Last year PHSKC declared racism a public health crisis. Now that the governor said K-12 teachers will be prioritized for vaccinations, there is fear amongst BIPOC and other communities that access to doses will be even more restricted.

Director Hayes: “This is of great concern to me. Working with community-based organizations is of great importance. That is an essential bridge into communities with having a trusted voice and also identifying potential vaccination sites. PHSKC makes recommendations to the state on where vaccines should go. We are prioritizing places like our community health centers who are working directly with BIPOC populations. We work with navigators who have been hired from within community to register BIPOC elders to get vaccines. We work with community-based organizations and faith-based organizations to establish sites for testing and bring in vaccination partners approved by the state. We are working with aging and disability services case workers to get our Black and brown seniors registered and have access to the vaccine. We have partnerships emerging with Uber and Lyft and others to help people get to the sites. We are translating information into 32 languages and offering interpretation at our call center. Our priority this month will continue to be these communities, even with the inclusion of school staff and childcare workers in the priority list.”

Addressing New Models of Public Safety

Additional audience questions addressed the King County council members, including CM Zahilay.

One audience member asked, “Charter Amendments 5 and 6 make KC Sheriff an appointed position, and allow Council to change the Sheriff’s duties as well as the structure of the public safety department. Residents are asking what are the next steps in the implementation of the advisory committee, and also is there a danger of defunding the police – how can constituents share their ideas?”

Councilmember Zahilay responded, “We are planning to broadly engage the people in the police service areas of King County Sheriff’s Office so we can deliver the best public safety services possible. Right now we have a system where many people don’t feel safe when it comes to our current systems of policing, that’s what the whole movement last year was about, that some people don’t feel safe, and the data backs that up. So in order to create the best system of public safety possible when we’re dealing with KCSO which is a big sprawling organization made up of unincorporated areas, contract cities, KC agencies like Metro and Sound Transit, we need to do a lot of engagement, we need to hear from stakeholders, and that is what we’re doing right now.”

“Just this past week, we passed out of the Law and Justice Committee an ordinance that would establish (once passed by full council) an advisory committee made up of 13 people who are stakeholders in the KCSO service area. All summer long they will be doing outreach to the broader communities and coming up with a report for us that shares how we can create the best system of public safety possible.”

“That report will be used in our hiring process of the new sheriff. That new sheriff is to begin on January 1st, 2022. We will work with that Sheriff to implement this system of public safety. One example of changes that could be made (depending on what the community wants) is potentially changing the system from one that, as a default, we send out armed police officers to respond to every challenge in our region to one that tailors our response to the challenge that we see. If we have a mental health crisis on the streets, as a default we send someone with a lethal weapon in response. That is how you get people dying who really need care and attention and resources. So instead, we send out public health professionals as a default, and we give people in King County that option when they call 9-1-1 of what kind of response they’re looking for. That is a potential kind of service that our advisory committee may recommend and that we may hire a new Sheriff based on.”

Councilmember Joe McDermott added: “Defunding the police is a slogan. If that makes you uncomfortable, ask yourself why. Maybe the system works well for you, but it doesn’t work well for everybody. One of the ways that I think of the services and the approach that comes to mind when I think of defunding the police is the kind of early intervention and up front support the Best Starts for Kids levy supports.”

Councilmember Rod Dembowski stated that he has “three KCSO contract cities in my district (Kenmore, Shoreline, Woodinville), who all have generally positive feedback about police services provided. KCSO has been a leader in some regards. The Radar Navigator Program pairs a social service worker with a police officer so when they are called to somebody in crisis, having a behavioral health challenge, or even someone just experiencing homelessness or living in their car, this program expands the two choices of police or fire when you call 9-1-1 to include the navigator program, where they can help identify solutions. Taking this to the next level might look like having the social service providers be the primary party responding to the call, letting police work on solving and preventing dangerous crimes, and other things in the core mission. We’re looking to expand this process countywide.”

Combatting the Rise of Anti-Asian Hate Crimes and Discrimination

One member of the audience asked what the county is doing to combat the rise in anti-Asian bias and hate crimes.

Councilmember Zahilay responded by saying, “I’ve been promoting the resources the county has in reporting racist attacks in the workplace. We need to make sure anti-Asian and anti-Pacific Islander violence is talked about, it’s on the rise, there have been attacks and other forms of discrimination. The first step is to be aware, report it, protect one another when we see it, and King County needs to make sure the resources are available so this type of hate is known about and people have a vehicle for addressing and responding to this kind of thing.”

Councilmember Dembowski added that they had taken a “1.5-year process to look at our civil rights office in King County. Funding had diminished in past, but we passed an enhanced ordinance that would create a Human and Civil Rights Commission with some independence, and a staffing and budget plan that would give the ability to respond to complaints and help root out discrimination and racially-based attacks. Hoping that in the coming months after an engagement process that we’ll be able to launch the commission, get it staffed, and get it funded.”

Upcoming Budget Briefing on COVID Supplemental Budget

Another audience member asked Budget Chair Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Wells what was planned for the COVID-19 relief funds from the federal government.

Councilmember Kohl-Welles replied, “We are hoping to develop COVID budgets with the King County Executive. Our sixth COVID budget will be briefed at our March 10 Budget and Fiscal Management Committee at 1 p.m., tune in on KCTV or Facebook Livestream. Public comment will be available. It will be a slimmer budget, but it will include some of the CARES Act funding that came from Congress’ action in December ($900 billion). We initially had to spend all of our $363 million by December 31, 2020, but in late December Congress decided to give more flexibility so we are going back and funding some of the programs we didn’t get to last fall. We will also be appropriating $45 million to fund the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, so we will be helping a lot more people avoid eviction and make rent payments. We are also creating a $5 million revolving fund to pay community-based organizations for services up front that cannot wait for reimbursement. Last year we appropriated a lot of funding to go to community organizations for food assistance, housing security, etcetera, but they had to pay expenses up front, and then we reimbursed them. This will provide more direct funding. We’re also including $9 million for current and ongoing PPE needs for public health and others so we can make sure everyone has masks. Another $11 million is for public health vaccination efforts, including set up and operation of high-volume sites and 19 mobile vaccination teams. On March 18 we’re expecting the King County Executive to transmit the COVID 7 budget, which will be much larger. We’ll be working with the Executive. $440 million is incoming once Congress approves American Rescue Plan.”

The Housing Crisis and Solutions to End Homelessness

One audience member asked, “A few residents no longer feel safe in their neighborhoods, they see needles and syringes on their sidewalks. They’re paying more in taxes but they’re not seeing a solution for homelessness. What are we doing to alleviate homelessness and opioid addiction?”

Councilmember McDermott, Governing Board Member of the Regional Homelessness Authority, explained: “In an area where we have resources, expertise, and the will – we need to put all three of those together and have a coordinated, effective response to homelessness and people in crisis. The thing is, people are not experiencing homelessness for a single reason. People are experiencing homelessness for multiple reasons – domestic violence, behavioral health issues, addiction, LGBTQ community members are overrepresented. There is no single solution. We must have a multi-pronged approach to meet people where they are. The problem over the last decade was in how diluted our response was. Seattle was doing its work, King County was doing its work. There was a separate board created to allocate federal funds that came through our region. Local cities and philanthropic organizations and private funders all invested money in different ways. We had discussions and talked, but not at the same table. It was not efficient. And that’s why we created the Regional Homelessness Authority, an effort to have one place where coordinated response happens. We anticipated hiring a CEO by last September but that effort was delayed due to the pandemic. We made a job offer last month, and unfortunately, the candidate the offer was made to last month has withdrawn their consideration. On Monday, the hiring board will be working on next steps. The work has not waited for the organization to be fully stood up. Everyone has continued their work. Health Through Housing, the 1/10 of one cent sales tax, will help address affordable housing for those experiencing chronic homelessness. 6,000 people are living on the streets, often with behavioral, mental health issues, and addiction. This resource is anticipated to help us move 1,600 people experiencing chronic homelessness this year into housing, like motels and individual housing units the county can buy now – particularly in this economy at a great price – and to make sure we provide comprehensive services and support so folks can remain in housing.”

Councilmember Kohl-Welles added, “Good news today, $53 million in revenue coming in from Health Through Housing, and even more next year. Hotels are going at a pretty good rate right now. The Just Care program is operated through the Public Defender Association along with several other community groups, and has been renting hotel rooms for chronically homeless individuals facing significant challenges like addiction and behavioral health issues. We’ve found that the privacy, a clean place to stay, and wrap-around services to help become self-sufficient are helpful. It’s funded through the end of March, and we’re looking at possible reimbursement from FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency].”

It was announced that FEMA will now be reimbursing 100% of COVID-related costs.

Councilmember Zahilay also addressed the issue. “Homelessness is a multi-faceted issue with tons of causes… a common solution though is more affordable public housing, and the continuum of housing all the way from transitional housing through permanent supportive housing, even to home ownership – we need a lot more of that. That is the necessary, foundational solution, but not enough on its own because of course there are so many other things we need to do to keep people housed because of all of the different challenges that exist. If we’re going to build the amount of housing we need, that’s going to require a lot more public investment – a lot more. If you think that homelessness is really a huge issue right now in King County, you haven’t seen anything yet. As the cost of living continues to increase in King County, as we continue to face crises like the pandemic which just exposes all of the different inequities in our system, all of the issues we’re talking about right now are only going to get worse if we don’t have a lot more public investment in housing. A McKinsey report that came out 1 or 2 years ago said we need $1 billion of investment every single year to just keep up with the need that exists, we’re not spending enough right now. There are people who say we’re spending too much on housing – we’re not spending nearly anywhere enough. The problem at the King County level is that we are not equipped to raise the kind of revenue that’s needed to address this problem. If we need $1 billion every single year, King County can only raise revenue in significant ways through sales tax and property tax. We’ve heard in the comments from people who’ve said property taxes are already too high, and could end up accelerating our housing crisis if seniors and other people on fixed incomes are forced out of their homes because of property taxes. At the county level we always face the dilemma of do we raise the revenue we need to create more housing while at the same time maybe exacerbating the problem by increasing taxes that harm the very people we’re trying to help? We need our state and federal government to really step up and provide the level of public investment that’s needed to meet this housing crisis. Because at the end of the day, homelessness is related to and caused by a big housing crisis in King County.”

In addition, Councilmember Kohl-Welles remarked, “We’re facing this enormous income inequality that keeps becoming exacerbated. This is a fabulous area that people want to move to and live in, but with that economic benefit and the companies that want to come here and pay high wages, we’re seeing displacement, we’re seeing gentrification, we’re seeing people forced out of affordable rents and housing overall. That has made the challenge for us so much more significant. The state legislature has got to make some changes because we are really handcuffed at the county level in terms of what we can do.”

How Zoning Impacts the Housing Crisis

The final question addressed zoning: “We’re hamstrung by zoning restrictions and the jurisdictional difference between cities and counties. How does that impact our ability to build affordable housing?”

Councilmember Dembowski answered: “King County primarily is a regional government and we do not have a lot of zoning authority left. Zoning is a key part of the solution, we’ve got to have the ability to build the housing that Councilmember Zahilay talked about. Land costs are a key part of it, we are constricted because of geography and our land use planning law, the Growth Management Act, and that means we’ve got to have our housing in the urban areas and we need density. Our cities – 39 of them in King County – are the primary governments responsible for zoning, and we have a range of views on that throughout the county. Some cities are stronger in terms of upzoning and incentivizing the ability to construct housing on a more affordable basis. Other cities are more resistant to density, there are neighbors that are concerned about changes to their community when development comes. From a regional perspective what we did at King County and the partnership with the Puget Sound Regional Council is to set targets or growth in each city. Every city in the county has to take a piece of the expected growth in the Growth Management Act. That act is pretty old, maybe from 1989. I’m working down in Olympia with some of our representatives to update that law. There’s a lot that can be done in terms of bringing the Growth Management Act and the local implementation of it into modern times. But I think the main takeaway is that we’ve got to work together as a region to provide the capacity to build more housing. The Regional Affordable Housing Taskforce said we need something like 240,000 units of additional housing. We’re way behind. We’ve got to work in partnership with the private sector to build a lot of that. Public resources need to be aimed at the lowest rates of affordability. We’re doing all we can at the county, but It’s also a national crisis, and it needs a national response.”

How to Contact Our King County Councilmember, Girmay Zahilay

Councilmember Zahilay

You can connect with our Councilmember, Girmay Zahilay of District 2, a few different ways:

Subscribe to his monthly eNewsletter.

Connect with him on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

His email address is [email protected].

Visit his Council webpage with important updates and information – including how to track where each project the councilmember is working on in Skyway (i.e. affordable housing, community center, participatory budgeting).

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