The COVID-19 pandemic, while catastrophic, brought about an unprecedented influx of federal cash for cities and counties. While that didn’t go so well in some places — Minnesota, for example, which just uncovered a “staggering” case of COVID relief fraud to the tune of $276 million — many localities used the funds to fill gaps in infrastructure.
As part of a series looking into how our county spent its relief funds, Real Change zeroed in on the county’s SafeStart ventilation program, a nearly $4 million effort to improve indoor air quality as the region began its reopening process. It started with a $300,000 budget in 2020, which, thanks to federal assistance, ballooned to $3.67 million in the 2021-22 budget cycle.
Fifteen full- and part-time staff worked on the program at its peak, said Terrance Mayers, Public Health – Seattle and King County (PHSKC) COVID-19 program lead on indoor air quality, who currently oversees it. None of them were buying fancy second homes. Instead, they were offering technical assistance and filtering equipment to small businesses, households in vulnerable areas, schools, homeless shelters, child care centers and other places with high coronavirus transmission risk.
The program launched in early 2021 with a focus on restaurants, which were some of the first public spaces to see lockdown restrictions ease, said Sinang Lee, environmental health program manager for PHSKC and the ventilation program’s first director. From there, it grew to include a host of different settings, from community centers to private homes.
“Before the COVID pandemic, we didn’t have an indoor air program. We really had to start from the ground up,” Lee said. The county had done some work on air quality in schools and child care facilities, but nothing on the scale required by post-COVID reopening.
Thanks to that complexity, staffing costs were a significant portion of the budget, coming in at just under $2.2 million. Building a network of community-based organizations to help get assistance and equipment to where it was needed most was a $212,710 expense, which included hiring translators and other communication aides.
With $1,237,510 spent on portable HEPA filters and MERV 13 particulate filter attachments for box fans, the county was able to get 6,091 HEPA filters out the door, Mayers said. That doesn’t include equipment distributed by the Health Engagement Action Resource Team (HEART) program — a team dedicated to assisting homelessness services organizations in reopening efforts — or the county’s Best Start for Kids (BSK) program. While the SafeStart ventilation program’s equipment purchasing is finished, with only about 125 filters left to give out, BSK has funding to get about 800 more for schools and child care facilities, Mayers said.
As for HEART, Marta Lema, PHSKC’s environmental health homelessness response coordinator, said it had achieved pretty good coverage.
“I would say that we’ve reached out to a significant amount of our congregate settings, which are the sites we want to prioritize because that’s where people are sharing space and engaging in unmasked activities like sleeping and eating. We’ve been able to connect with 184 sites across the county, and HEART has distributed just under 4,000 HEPA units at this point,” she said.
Claire Tuohy-Morgan, the communications director for the Downtown Emergency Service Center, said the organization had benefited greatly from the program, receiving about 500 Winix air filters to make congregate spaces safer.
Lema said that the HEART team also gave out MERV 13 filter attachments to the Low Income Housing Institute for use in tiny home villages, where each resident receives a box fan for their unit. That setup provides protection not only against coronavirus but also smoke.
“The nice thing about the MERV 13 and box fan combo is that not only is it helping to capture harmful particulate matter, but then also it can help to cool down the space. During wildfire smoke, we know it can be really hot,” she said. The fans tend to be a better solution for residential situations, Lee said, while HEPA filters help more in areas with more traffic.
“The box fan was more of a DIY, affordable option. You kind of go to the Home Depot, get the normal box fan and then attach the MERV 13 filter to it. It’s something that’s, in the long run, more affordable to maintain, because the [HEPA] filters do cost a bit of money. For the households, we really focused on something that was a little bit more maintainable and would work during the wildfires and heat,” Lee said.
Indeed, the silver lining of the program might be that it increased air filtration in advance of another smoke season, especially for vulnerable populations like children and people experiencing homelessness.
PHSKC’s internal tracking shows that the program served 464 homeless shelters, 1,124 daycare centers and 176 schools. In total, 2,401 unique sites received either technical assistance or filtration equipment.
While the equipment distribution portion of the program is close to being wrapped up, Mayers said the technical assistance portion is ongoing and as important as ever.
“We still have our investigators going out, reaching out. We’ve expanded our efforts to include adult family homes and behavioral health centers. Efforts continue,” he said. That’s especially important with the ongoing threat to air quality posed by wildfire smoke. He would like to see the program expand to include, well, pretty much anywhere that needs it.
“I would actually like to add more sectors to it. I think that the outreach efforts can continue. This is something that is not going away.”
This story has been updated to reflect that the HEART acronym stands for the Health Engagement Action Resource Team.
Tobias Coughlin-Bogue is the associate editor at Real Change.
Read more of the Sept. 28-Oct. 4, 2022 issue.