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caption: Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan speaks at a news conference Thursday, Feb. 8, 2018, in Seattle.
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Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan speaks at a news conference Thursday, Feb. 8, 2018, in Seattle.
Credit: AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan: "We need the president to declare this a national emergency."

Mayor Durkan has announced water and electricity will not be shut off for residents who can't afford their payments during the coronavirus outbreak.

This is a transcript of some of the highlights of Bill Radke's conversation with Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan.

Mayor Durkan, how are you monitoring the outbreak?

It is an "all hands on deck." And I think a couple of things your listeners should know is we look at the World Health Organization report and they said the number one thing that governments need to do when they're responding to this, is speak as one government, to get the public accurate information, and they developed unified strategies.

So I think the public should take a lot of comfort in the fact that yesterday you saw the governor, the county executives from the three counties that are affected, the mayor, standing together to give the public the same information, and what we were doing and why we were doing it.

You're meeting with a lot of civic leaders and also health experts. What questions are you asking?

So there's a whole range of questions. Our biggest problem throughout this process has been that the failure and lack of testing has hampered us as a city, a region, and a state. CDC's guidelines for who could be tested were way too limited. And then the availability of test kits today remain a problem.

So the good news is we have some of the world's best researchers and scientists here. So we let them take over some of this. They were able to get and actually sequence the genome of this virus and through looking at a number of positive tests, make their own modeling determinations of how broadly this had spread in the community.

I want everyone to know that despite the fact that the numbers today show that there are 366 cases statewide, we believe there's at least 1,000 cases in the community. And based on the science, if we don't intervene, those cases will roughly double every 6 to 7 days. So we were looking at exponential growth that by the beginning of April, we would have over 40,000 cases and 400 deaths. That's why the governor decided to act so decisively and why the county and city are evaluating a range of measures to really stop the spread of this virus.

When you said you believe maybe 1,000 cases in the community, you mean Washington statewide?

King County, Seattle region. And I know those numbers are kind of staggering for people, but it's one reason we're acting with such urgency. We have seen what's happened in other regions that acted too late and we knew we had to act decisively.

The best way we can slow the spread of this virus is to really slow down the places that people are in contact with one another and then to make sure that we're driving resources to those people who are most vulnerable from the most severe consequences of the virus. And at the same time, looking at those people who are most vulnerable from the economic consequences of what's going to be probably a very long haul in this region.

The governor banned gatherings of more than 250 people in King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties through the end of March. Are you banning even smaller gatherings in Seattle or are you going with that guidance?

The guidance had a complementary guidance, which was all gatherings under 250 also are prohibited unless they can comply with the King County Public Health recommendations on how to keep people safe -- both by number of people in the gathering, the social distancing required so people can keep distance from each other, the sanitation, and any employees being regularly screened for the virus.

Are police enforcing that? Are you breaking up big gatherings? How is that working?

I don't think we need to go to how we're going to enforce it yet.

What we need to do is make sure the public understands the reason we're doing this, is this really is a critical health emergency. And the best thing we can do, the best line of defense against this emergency, is how each of us act.

I've seen in this region that when there's things that really need to be done as a community, people respond. And the governor emphasized this, the [King] County Executive Dow Constantine has, and I have, to say, we really need people to understand why we're doing this, because people will get sick and a significant number of people will die if we do not take these steps.

Again, this is an estimate, but you're guessing at how many cases by April and how many deaths?

This is if we don't take any steps -- so it is exponential growth -- it doubles approximately every 6 days. It's a range. And this is the mid-range that the experts believe that they have confidence.

So you start on March 10th, we believe we had 1,100 cases. It doubles basically every week. So after 6 weeks, there would be 70,000 cases. And by early April, there'd be over 40,000 cases.

So once we were able to get this modeling back from our researchers at the Fred Hutch, Bill Gates and others, that gave us better data on which to make some decisions on how we needed to really reduce gatherings as quickly as we could.

And did I hear you estimate a number of deaths in King County?

Without any action? By April 7th, it was estimated there would be hundreds of deaths.

Listener Casey: I know you've gotten this question a lot, but with the lack of knowledge and the reliance mostly on estimates, knowing who has the virus or doesn't, is really important. So what steps is Seattle taking to ramp up the number of tests available to those who need or want one, can get one?

That's a really excellent question. And I think you've hit on what has been the greatest frustration for our public health and our health care worker community, as well as myself and the other elected officials -- is the lack of testing and the ability to ramp up and not only do the tests, but then do the lab work for the test, still hasn't reached where it needs to reach.

Fortunately, the University of Washington was able to stand up their own lab, as did another entity here, private lab. We're working with a range of entities, including Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to see how do we expedite as quickly as possible to have broad scale testing.

And we do that for a number of reasons. One is, if people do test positive, you want to take some very concrete steps to isolate them from everybody else so it doesn't spread, and monitor them to see if they're gonna be one of the people who who gets bad symptoms.

The really good news I want to really emphasize to listeners out there is the vast majority of people who will contract this virus -- and all of us will know people who do -- will only have mild symptoms, and will recover, and they will recover probably in a relatively short period of time.

But a number of people will experience more severe symptoms. Those are people who are older, who have underlying health conditions. And so we want to make sure that as we are doing the broad scale testing, we can reserve our health care beds and our health care system for the people who really need to be treated rather than the people who might be able to recover safely at home.

Does the city have any control over the number of tests available and who gets tested? Or is that a bigger issue -- is that a state issue that you're leaving to county public health, etc.?

We don't have any direct control, but we have been working with King County Public Health, but also with the private lab and vendors and outside organizations because we in the city want to make sure that we can respond quickly to those situations.

If there's a senior home or a first responder needs a test that we can do the test right away, get the test not just conducted, but get the results back to take decisions.

I met with the Vice President when he was here. I sent him a letter this week, again to emphasize we have to get more testing capability.

You know, Seattle, unfortunately, is the front lines of this virus in America. But it won't be the only city or the last city. And how we do here is going to really determine how the rest of the nation weathers this. And so it is really, we are we need to use every resource we would do if it was a hurricane or another disaster.

We need the president to declare this a national emergency so that we can get those kinds of funds and resources and support immediately.

President Trump said today he might restrict domestic travel to Washington state. What's your reaction?

I think the place the president needs to be emphasizing is the public health data so that we can get the resources we need to stop this virus. We need a national emergency. We need more test kids. We need resources so we can deal with our vulnerable populations. And that's what we've asked the Vice President for. And we're hoping that they will give us.

No reaction to the idea of restricting domestic traveled to Washington...

At this point, you know, I don't want to make this a political partisan issue.

I don't think there's any health care data whatsoever that supports a travel ban to Washington state. This virus has already spread to every part of this country. I've talked to mayors on the East Coast, up and down the West Coast, in the middle of the heartlands, and the virus is there and will grow. And if we don't focus our resources on how to fight the virus instead of each other, we will not weather this storm as well.

Listener Alison: My question is more surrounding the school closures down in the Seattle area and the concern that school is likely the only safe place for some of our kids and our community and how the district and the city is supporting one another to support those families and those children who are at most risk.

That is such a great question. And it's one that has been really the center of the discussions that we've had -- the governor, the county executive -- with the schools.

As you know, the school districts are their own jurisdiction, making their decisions. But we've been with them to really focus on two issues. One is, even if you close, you need to find some way to accommodate those kids who have nowhere safe to go. You have to find a way to deliver nutrition to free and reduced lunch kids who have nowhere to eat.

And you have to be able to provide some kind of child care capabilities because we did an analysis together with the health care system -- a significant number of our frontline health care workers have kids in K-12. And if their kids don't have somewhere to go and they stay home, it will really hamper our ability to provide the health safety net we need for our community.

A KUOW listener named C.J. is asking about the capacity of hospitals. Do we have enough hospital beds? Are we looking at rationing, health care or beds?

I think our focus right now, the reason the governor took these steps, is if we can flatten the curve of the growth, then we will provide relief for our health care system and not overwhelm it.

So all of these steps really are designed to not just decrease the spread of the virus, but to really flatten the curve on how and when it spreads so that those people who are most sick can enter the health care system and it has enough resilience. We're fortunate that we have the Northwest Hospital, the hospital organization that plans for this kind of event.

But I will say we are in uncharted territory. Our region, and no region in the country has gone through what we are going through and will go through. So one of the reasons we're taking the steps we're taking, as hard as it is for every resident and business in Seattle, is that we need to make sure that our health care system can operate.

Listener Oyuki: I just recently moved to Bellevue and somebody asked about what is a plan for low income families that still have to work and they don't know where to leave their kids. Are they gonna set up any type of program where families can go and get food? Also thinking about, for example, my mail lady, what's gonna happen to those workers? How are those state workers gonna be helped?

Those are a great series of questions. And it goes back to what I said is that, in addition to the health emergency, the governor, the county executive and I and people in Everett and Snohomish County, the East side have also been discussing how do we build some economic resilience into this?

We're already seeing a number of small businesses close. With them workers get displaced. So one of the first things the governor did after consulting with a range of people was to increase people's availability for unemployment insurance so that if people are laid off or furloughed because a business closes, there's still some income coming.

We have been focused on also what kind of relief packages can we give to our small businesses and our gig economy workers. For our small businesses, we're going to defer their B&O taxes. We're gonna make sure their utility bills also can be paid or deferred. We're looking at a range of economic packages as well to them.

We've worked with some of our local companies to see how they could step up. Amazon created a fund of $5 million to help those businesses in and around their campus. Microsoft, Amazon, Starbucks created a fund to get money directly to displaced workers and families.

We're also working with the schools, the Seattle Public Schools, starting Monday, we'll have some lunch nutrition capability for families. They haven't worked it out completely, but everyone is very cognizant that we are going to have to really work to help those people who already were the most disadvantaged or marginalized in our community to protect them through and help them weather this very difficult time.

You mentioned businesses getting some help with utilities. What about residents who can't pay the utility bills, the city is not going to shut off water and electricity?

Absolutely not. Nobody is going to get shut off. If anybody is impacted because of this crisis, we will work with them after we come out of it on how to pay their bills and how to get out of this. The last thing we want is for people to become more housing insecure or not have access to critical utilities like water or power or heat.

Listener Elise: We are closed down for two weeks, the public schools, and it seems like it could be longer than that. And I wonder how it will be handled on two levels. One, the standardized testing. Will they go forward and start testing in schools in April? And the second question I have is how will we make up the time? Is there an expectation that at the end of the year we'll be going to school through July?

The office of the Superintendent for Public Instruction, which is the person who is at the top level in the state's overall school districts, has been working with all of the affected school districts and other school districts in the state who may see something similar. And these questions are ones that they're resolving right now.

And so I think that they are looking at both. How do you make up the time? What does that look like? What do you do for testing? Colleges are also grappling with this. I spoke with the president of the University of Washington on Ana Marie Cauce. And they're right at the point where they would normally be getting acceptances to college, as well as kind of making their own determinations on what kind of testing they would need. So I think that you're seeing both at the high school level and the colleges themselves nationwide grappling with issues about admissions.

This is a question from Ann in Seattle: I'm calling to ask for advice on charitable donations we might make to help our community get through coping with and lessening the effects of coronavirus. What can listeners, KUOW listeners do?

Can I just say that's why I love this city is because when people get through the questions about their own anxieties, the next series of questions I always get is how can I help?

And there is a couple of specific charities that have been stood up. One at the Seattle Foundation, one at United Way that will try to get money directly to displaced workers or families that have either housing insecurity or employment insecurity. So that's two places I would recommend looking.