Mercer Island Fire Chief Steve Heitman speaks at the city’s second situation briefing on COVID-19. These briefings will occur weekly at 3 p.m. on Thursday, streamed live. Video screenshot.

Mercer Island Fire Chief Steve Heitman speaks at the city’s second situation briefing on COVID-19. These briefings will occur weekly at 3 p.m. on Thursday, streamed live. Video screenshot.

City holds second weekly COVID-19 briefing

Social distancing continues to be emphasized.

The city of Mercer Island had its second weekly situation briefing on the COVID-19 pandemic on March 19. There will now be a briefing each week at 3 p.m. Thursday, live streamed and later posted on the city’s YouTube channel.

City manager Jessi Bon reported that, as of March 19, there were still only two confirmed positive cases of the virus on the Island that the city was aware of, but there were likely more, as many people may have it and not be tested.

In addition to an update on city operations, the briefings also will include presentations from different community groups. The March 19 briefing included information from the Mercer Island School District and the Mercer Island Chamber of Commerce. There were also updates given on the fire, police and youth and family services departments.

The full video can be found online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sDcuklrJDo0&t=2116s.

The session began with words from Mercer Island Mayor Benson Wong.

“Sadly, this pandemic and the health and economic crisis that it has created will impact the Island and the world for some period of time,” he said. “The city council, city manager, and our entire leadership team are committed to keeping the community informed about your city’s operations … While every effort is made to be as current as possible, we have all witnessed how quickly things can change since our first situation briefing.”

City

Bon reviewed that the city’s top priority remains to provide essential services — such as police, fire, having safe streets and roads, maintaining utilities and utility infrastructure — and to ensure the city has the resources it needs.

She said Public Health – Seattle & King County (Public Health) has jurisdiction over the emergency. Public Health will notify the city whenever there is a confirmed positive case at a senior living facility, but that information is no longer published.

Bon said it is the only type of positive case that gets reported to the city, so if anyone calls to ask about rumored cases in their neighborhood, she does not have that information. Testing and data are limited, she said, so there is little information.

“The guidance is, yes, assume people that you’re going to potentially interact with have it, so don’t. And assume you have it, so keep a distance,” she said. She also noted that people who are showing symptoms are self-quarantining but that does not mean that they have the virus.

“I know this is frustrating. We’re a data driven society, I’m a data driven person. This is why it’s so important to adhere to the social distancing guidelines,” she said.

Many people have been asking the city all kinds of questions, according to Bon, and she and staff are trying to answer all of them. Ahead of future briefings, Islanders can submit questions to the city manager’s email at citymanager@mercergov.org.

For utility assistance during the pandemic, Bon said the city is working on a payment modification and more information will be available soon. Meanwhile, there is already a city utility assistance program in place for those who qualify as low income and that can be found online at mercergov.org/utilitiesservicediscounts. Similar programs can be found with regional partners such as Puget Sound Energy as well.

Annual backflow testing will not be suspended, but the city is working on updating policies so that those who experience a delay — or needing to defer because their meter is inside their home — can do so without incurring a fine. Permitting also is continuing, although updated online. More information can be found on the city’s website, www.mercergov.org.

Bon said the city will continue communicating daily via its website, social media and also a new Let’s Talk page devoted to COVID-19 found at letstalk.mercergov.org/coronavirus.

Bon also announced that a city staff member — Sarah Bluvas — had been reappointed to serve as small business liaison, working with the Chamber of Commerce, local businesses and city council members on programs to support business owners financially and logistically. Anyone can contact Bluvas via email at sarah.bluvas@mercergov.org.

Mercer Island over the weekend also closed its playgrounds, sport courts and picnic shelters. Parks, trails, open spaces and restrooms remain open if people adhere to public health guidelines. Bon said it is important to continue following public health requirements in these areas, such as social distancing and staying home if sick.

Schools

Donna Colosky, superintendent for the Mercer Island School District (MISD), gave an update along with assistant superintendent Fred Rundle.

“Thanks to our Island community for your patience, your offers of help and sharing your thoughts with the school board and myself as this is certainly unprecedented, having a school closure for six weeks. We do appreciate your support,” Colosky said. “We know how disruptive the closures are for our MISD families. Our team has been working nonstop over the past week to ensure that we provide nutrition, beginning this week, to all children on the Island as needed, and childcare for health care workers and first responders, beginning next week.”

She said the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) had essentially instructed them to think of this time as an extended spring break — a pause in instruction and a time to think forward. She said they are continuing to look at ways to engage students outside of the classroom, including working with other districts, but that they don’t believe screens are the best way to nourish the whole child.

She also said staff miss their students but are able to continue working remotely and be regularly compensated.

MISD began serving free lunches to Island children — not just those registered in the district — March 16 and on that day served more than 150. Since then the daily average has been 140. This is done in a grab-and-go style, with parents picking up the lunches from Mercer Island High School and Islander Middle School.

Rundle assured that high school seniors will graduate, although the district is still working to determine whether or not there will be a commencement ceremony. There are also concerns surrounding SAT/ACT testing for other students, as well as AP testing and earning dual credit.

“While it is an uncertain time, we will make the most of it and ensure that our graduates have a meaningful experience in their final semester of high school,” he said.

Rundle said they did not roll out a whole new online learning platform right away, but they will work on that. In the meantime families can find published resources on the district’s website.

More information about MISD and the services they are offering during the closure can be found at mercerislandschools.org.

Chamber of Commerce

Laurie Givan, executive director of the Mercer Island Chamber of Commerce, presented. Their office is closed until April 24 but she will continue to work remotely and anyone can reach out to her.

Additionally, businesses and community members can go online to their website, mercerislandchamberofcommerce.org.

She said the chamber will have daily updates for businesses resources as they receive them from the county and the state. They will also continue communicating via email blasts and social media.

“The chamber will continue to be a conduit of information from government to our businesses, business to business, and business to our community,” she said. “We will continue to work closely with the city as we learn more about this crisis and think of solutions to help our businesses. We will also do our best to provide relevant information on how the community can connect and support our businesses.

“In the near term, COVID-19 is severely impacting businesses and jobs, and Islanders are in a unique position to help businesses in our community – help that is needed immediately while our businesses wait for state and federal assistance.”

She said they have put together some ways people can help businesses, including buying gift cards, booking future appointments, shopping online and ordering for pickup or delivery. Their website has a section on how to patron local businesses that they will continue to update.

Givan is available to help all local businesses and can be reached via email at info@mercerislandchamberofcommerce.org or by phone at 206-232-3404.

Fire

Mercer Island Fire Chief Steve Heitman gave an update on the city’s Fire Department and said he was happy to report that there had been zero potential exposures to crews on calls, according to King County, and that they continue to operate at full staff.

He said they were fortunate to have started working with personal protective equipment (PPE) early in the situation. They also have been able to secure plenty of PPE — eye wear, masks, gowns and gloves. He said many departments are struggling with this, but they’ve been able to get some, and what they didn’t have they were able to get from other departments. First responders are now tier one level priority for receiving PPE, Heitman said.

“The good news is we are still at a point where if they’re wearing full PPE, it’s not considered an exposure even if they do have an encounter with someone who has COVID-19,” Heitman said. “Staff morale is good at this point but this is going to be long, this is going to be ongoing, and so we’re going to do everything we can to maintain that.”

He said daily wellness checks, including temperature check and questions, are taking place for crew members. Anyone with a fever is sent home. The department will start checking temperatures halfway through shifts and 24 hours into shifts as well.

Dispatch screening criteria has updated and crews are alerted when they are about to go into high risk facilities so they can first put on full PPE. He said there are two facilities with known patients on the Island and 27 across the county.

On every single call, the fire department now has a scout in full PPE go in and ask a series of questions before the rest of the crew to determine how much PPE they will all wear.

The Mercer Island Fire Department has canceled all classes and non-required training. They also have moved most meetings to conference calls. Additionally, they are no longer doing blood pressure checks at the fire station, but people can have their blood pressure checked at their doctor’s office or a pharmacy.

Heitman said that while the doors are locked, they’re still there to help out and still want people to utilize them in an emergency.

“Despite the fact that the lobby doors are locked, it does not mean that we are not open for business, it does not mean that we do not want to assist you if you are in need of medical attention,” he said. “We always will respond to life threatening emergencies. Call 911 or ring the doorbell. We will answer.”

Not everyone they attend to will be taken to a hospital, as hospital beds are running low and they want to as much as possible have availability for those in critical condition.

Information from all of the calls they go on is logged and tracked by King County, he said, which they use to determine the potential for exposures.

He said they have been working well with their union on the many changes so far. As they look ahead to potential future scenarios and anticipate worst case staffing needs, they will discuss all of that with the union as well.

He said if firefighters start getting sick, with the virus likely to come in waves, they may need to look at the possibility of people not being able to work. They would have to consider borrowing other firefighters who are off duty from their job or adjusting service levels.

He said what they know about the virus right now is that it has a high mortality rate, partially due to where it started in senior-living facilities, and that the number of cases is going to increase. He said there is about to be a huge spike as more testing becomes available and not to be alarmed.

He said there is only one drive thru testing site set up at the University of Washington and people can only go there with an appointment scheduled through doctor referral.

Symptoms occur on average within 14 days, he said, but this can vary. Anyone with a cough, fever, or respiratory issues should stay home and call their health care provider. Their doctor is the only way they can be connected to testing.

He said they have regional conferences daily with organizations including Public Health, the state Department of Health, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He also urges everyone to visit the Public Health website for the most up to date and accurate local information.

He emphasized the importance of following all Public Health guidelines, including avoiding crowds, staying home if sick, and social distancing.

“Just because you’re off from school it doesn’t mean you should be getting together and going on play dates. You have to keep that distance,” he said.

Police

Police Chief Ed Holmes said a big focus has been on keeping officers healthy. As such, personal hygiene has been important, with hand sanitizer throughout the station and wipes in patrol cars for disinfecting equipment.

There have been several changes to protocol and they have modified schedules for those not on patrol, with most now telecommuting. There are reassignments available, he said, meaning some people not working on patrol could be moved to working patrol if needed.

He said changes are being made almost daily. Most training classes have been canceled and regional meetings have been postponed or moved online.

One officer was potentially exposed, having been exposed to someone with flu like symptoms while off duty, and who was then in self quarantine and waiting for test results.

“We’re doing the best we can to keep ourselves healthy before we go out in the community,” Homes said. “We’re doing what we can, but crime is still happening.”

They have also benefited from dispatch screening calls. He shared an example from a recent disturbance call.

Dispatch had screened for potential COVID-19 symptoms, and it turned out that the person calling was in quarantine and had tested but was awaiting results. Knowing that ahead of time, officers were able to dawn full PPE to deal with the situation.

Of course it all came back off again after. Holmes said this was a good experience and they learned a few things about taking this stuff on and off more efficiently. They will wear PPE when responding to any care facility as well.

“Despite this virus, crime is still happening. The bad guys do take the opportunity to use this as a time to take advantage of people,” he said. “Senior citizens seem to be a favorite target.”

He said people should be wary of scams at this time, particularly anyone saying they can take money to help virus victims, and to never give personal information away to phone or email solicitors. People can always call the non-emergency dispatch number to discuss their situation with the police: 425-577-5656.

“I want to be able to keep the officers safe and healthy and to be able to respond to issues like this or the disturbance we had the other night, so again we’re doing what we can to keep people healthy so we can respond to the community,” Holmes said.


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