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caption: An unidentified patient is transported into an ambulance from the Life Care Center of Kirkland, the long-term care facility at the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in Washington state, on Tuesday, March 3, 2020, in Kirkland. It is unclear if the patient is suspected of having coronavirus.
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An unidentified patient is transported into an ambulance from the Life Care Center of Kirkland, the long-term care facility at the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in Washington state, on Tuesday, March 3, 2020, in Kirkland. It is unclear if the patient is suspected of having coronavirus.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Redmond fire chief, other leaders told to stay quiet about having coronavirus, sources say

The Eastside was the first hit by the coronavirus outbreak -- and Redmond fire command staff were among those who contracted the disease in March.

It remains unclear exactly how the virus reached the Redmond Fire command staff, including the chief, and four others leading the charge in coronavirus response for the city.

Few people, including city council members, knew that five people on fire command staff had coronavirus in mid-March -- even though they had worked together at City Hall.

That's because two of those command staff members were told by the chief operating officer not to share publicly that they had coronavirus, multiple sources told KUOW. Those two passed along the demand to the three others who were infected.

Among the five were: Redmond Fire Chief Tommy Smith, emergency manager Pattijean Hooper, and deputy fire chief Don Horton.

The command staff were not told why they should keep mum.

Redmond Mayor Angela Birney denied these claims to KUOW.

Birney said it was up to Public Health to alert those who may have been exposed. It wasn't the city's job, she said.

Birney said she was limited by the Americans with Disabilities Act, and that she couldn’t require staff to inform her of their positive results, and couldn’t share the number of positives, even when withholding names, with people.

Maxine Whattam, the chief operating officer, said through a spokesperson that she is not aware of the two command staff that shared they were told by Whattam not to circulate their positive coronavirus status.

The city followed recommendations from King County Public Health, the CDC, and medical services officer Jim Whitney, regarding communication with staff that test positive for Covid-19 .

City Hall was ultimately shut down after the first two positive results were made public to staff in mid-March. Employees were asked to work from home.

But staff and volunteers were not told if they had been exposed.

For command staff, not telling their coworkers that they contracted coronavirus went against their mission: to save lives. If their coworkers didn't know they'd been exposed, they wouldn't know to look for signs of illness. They might spread it to family members.

Two emergency management volunteers who spent time at City Hall voiced these concerns in emails to council members.

“By not being honest, the city leadership is potentially endangering staff who may have been exposed and therefore the community at large," the volunteer wrote.

The email continued: “I’ve learned that at least two of those with positive test results were instructed by the Redmond chief operating officer Maxine Whattam not to tell anyone of their test results.

"I personally had been working with these individuals shortly before their diagnoses but was unaware due to this instruction. I feel this was extremely negligent behavior on the part of a high-level city representative.”

Another volunteer wrote by email that they were concerned about Covid-19 cases that went unreported, and that those who were exposed were not told to self-quarantine.

“Some of my extended family members are immune-compromised," the second volunteer wrote. "I was forced to independently decide whether to self-quarantine.”

An emergency volunteer KUOW spoke with was never told by the city or Public Health that they may have been exposed to the coronavirus.

Few ever learned of the Covid-19 leadership changes that followed the diagnoses. They were made without the knowledge of city council.

City leaders transferred command of Covid-19 response to the police department. They named Police Chief Darrell Lowe acting director in Smith's place, and made Lowe responsible for directing emergency operations. Cpt. Erik Scairpon filled in for Hooper.

Since their removal, Hooper has been sidelined from coronavirus response, despite her experience responding to disasters. And Chief Smith was invited to operate under a unified command with the police chief.

Councilmember Steve Fields, who ran against Mayor Birney in 2019, said he learned of the leadership change from the volunteer emails sent to the mayor and council. Fields said he noticed during his two years he had been on council that the former mayor John Marchione was proactive about alerting council to personnel changes.

“That didn’t happen in this case, and I think that’s unfortunate,” Fields said about the transition of Covid-19 response leaders.

Councilmember Jessica Forsythe said communication has improved recently, as these issues were brought to light.

But she believes there are still necessary pieces missing of coronavirus information being disseminated from city leaders.

"I do feel like we’re been left out of the loop," Forsythe said.

Mayor Birney said after recovering from the coronavirus, fire chief Tommy Smith is now co-leading the Emergency Coordination Center with the Redmond police chief Darrell Lowe. The center has been activated for citywide communication and coordination of incident duties.

However, after Hooper fell ill, she was effectively removed from her leadership role in Covid-19 response with little explanation given to those around her.

Hooper is known for her years of work with emergency management in Kirkland and Redmond. She also completed years of leadership assignments with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. She has been on 22 federal disaster deployments, including Hurricane Katrina and 9/11.

Mayor Birney reasoned in emails to others concerned with Hooper’s transition that someone in her position required “boots on the ground” experience.

Birney said she wasn’t aware of any complaints that came out against Hooper.

“I knew we had the capacity to function better than we were,” Birney said about her choice.

When asked how he felt about the level of transparency trickling down from city administrators to the council and public, Fields offered a number to indicate his feelings. On his scale, one was the least transparent and 10 the most.

“On a scale of 1 to 10 -- 2,” he said.

“We on council would also like to see a full accounting for why these (leadership) decisions were made,” Fields said. “I don’t have a full understanding or knowledge of what took place.”

Mayor Birney said she didn't have to tell council members about the leadership changes, because Redmond has a powerful mayor role that is independently elected.

Cities elsewhere took a different approach. Aurora, Illinois, mayor Richard Irvin and police chief Kristen Ziman came out publicly about their positive results at the end of March. Their staffs and families were told about their results, to prevent the spread.

Redmond City councilmember Varisha Khan said leadership is about taking "ownership of one's mistakes" in order to solve them. She called on the mayor to do so.

"In a time of public crisis, our city leadership could have aspired to a higher bar by being transparent and honest, but instead decided to function behind closed doors and by lying," Khan said. "Disregard for the public and the truth is not governance."

Birney never foresaw the pandemic, after beginning her new role as mayor in January 2020, she said. The coronavirus was put on King County's radar two months into her first term.

But she said that with all of the decisions she’s made, she was doing her best to make sure she was taking care of the city and community.

Correction: A earlier version of this story incorrectly implied that members of the Redmond fire department's command staff contracted coronavirus from Redmond first responders to Life Care.