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'Hope is not a strategy,' says Kirkland city manager of coronavirus response

As an illness spread through a nursing home in Kirkland in late February, City Manager Kurt Triplett says that testing was a key missing factor that left officials unsatisfied as they responded to the outbreak.

“Testing would have made a huge difference in the past two weeks," Triplett told KUOW. "Testing, even now today, could be much better, faster and more adequate. I don’t think anyone should be satisfied. I know everyone now gets it, why it’s so critical. And I know everyone is giving their best efforts to make more tests available, and the turnaround faster. But, no, the city wasn’t happy, but I don’t think anyone should be happy.”

As Washington sees the outbreak of COVID-19 continue to spread, nursing homes where vulnerable populations are located are expected to be hit especially hard. While most people are expected to experience mild symptoms, people above the age of 60 and people with compromised immune systems or health complications are at high risk.

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The Life Care Center in Kirkland was the first such facility to report the novel virus. According to Public Health - Seattle & King County, there have been 22 COVID-19 deaths associated with Life Care Center.

Triplett provided insight into how a city such as his is facing what is now deemed a global pandemic. He notes that his city’s firefighters first noticed an excessive number of calls coming from the facility in late February. The fire department quickly notified the local health department that something like a flu could be going around the Life Care Center.

“What evolved over the next week is that the Kirkland Fire Department became the primary medical care for that facility,” Triplett told KUOW. “They were calling 911 repeatedly. We were going in. We were dealing with patients. We were making decisions on the ground whether to transport that patient or not. So we’ve really been front-and-center for the original response to the Life Care Center."

"And it was our team that said ‘we really need to bring in federal assistance; we really need a federal medical team to take over this facility.’”

He noted that the state and Public Health – Seattle & King County began providing guidance to the Life Care Center on Feb. 27, after firefighters reported the outbreak. A federal team arrived more than a week later on Saturday, March 7.

“That’s when we had ... what some would see as a MASH unit of doctors and nurses to provide the medical care onsite,” Triplett said.

“Everybody was reacting as fast as they could, but we were the only ones that had immediate knowledge on the ground,” he said of the federal response.

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Finding the right communication channels is what took the most time, Triplett said. Once the right contact was made, things “moved swiftly,” he said, though “we certainly wished we could have all done it faster, but we totally understand the perspective of those above us.”

As other cities begin to tackle COVID-19 outbreaks, Triplett stresses that “hope is not a strategy.”

“This will come to you,” he said. “And if you’re fortunate, you'll be wrong, but first prepare."

He adds that cities need to establish a firm line of information to the community, staff, and stakeholders.

“You do need to move non-essential things off,” he said. “There’s nothing like a pandemic to give you clarity on priorities. So you find meetings that you don’t need to have, or community events that might not be necessary. So what we’ve tried to tell members of the community as well as our staff is to be really thoughtful; think differently for a period of time. You don’t have to go to that family reunion. You may want to move that evening meeting off. People need to be practical and thoughtful.”

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