By Harold Scoggins, Fire Chief, Seattle Fire Department
It is hard to believe that almost a year and a half has passed since the first case of COVID-19 was reported in the Puget Sound region, making our area the epicenter in the United States for the pandemic.
Early in the pandemic when COVID-19 testing was extremely limited, we recognized that firefighters on the front lines of the pandemic needed access to testing to prevent spread in the first responder workforce and to the patients we serve. After we received approval from the Washington State Department of Health to conduct testing in March 2020, we became the first in the nation to implement a testing site for first responders, conducted by first responders. This was the beginning of several pivots in our work to serve the community.
As the City department responsible for firefighting and emergency medical services, I immediately said “yes” when the Mayor asked us to help set up mass testing for the public. In April of 2020, we began to test staff and residents at long-term care facilities and adult homes, where the disease spread quickly and was causing the most suffering. By mid-summer, our effort expanded to standing up four community testing sites for the public located geographically across the city. Due to high case counts of COVID-19 in ZIP codes located in the south end and west side of the city, two of our sites (both walk-ups) were stationed in Rainier Beach and West Seattle.
Since June 2020, we have conducted more than 756,000 COVID-19 tests, helping our residents make informed decisions on whether to self-isolate and assisting health departments with effective contact tracing.
Our testing infrastructure provided us with an easy transition to begin administering vaccines when they became available in January. From the start, we knew the City would need to help fill gaps in the health care system and prioritize equitable vaccine distribution. With direction from our partners in the Mayor’s Office, Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs and Department of Neighborhoods, we came up with an outreach plan for how we would distribute the limited supply of vaccine.
We staffed and deployed our mobile vaccination teams and initially sent them to adult family homes, long-term care facilities and permanent supportive housing to vaccinate those who suffer the worst consequences of the disease.
Our next step in outreach was to provide vaccinations to communities disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 and who are historically underserved. By leveraging existing relationships with organizations serving the BIPOC community, we hosted 24 pop-up clinics and deployed to locations including the Central Area Senior Center, First African Methodist Episcopal Church, Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle and Ethiopian Community of Seattle among others.
In our first three months, Seattle Fire’s mobile team effort has administered more than 26,500 vaccinations (including second doses), with 59% of those identifying as BIPOC.
As more supply became available, the fire department transitioned our Rainier Beach and West Seattle community testing sites to vaccination hubs. After administering nearly 107,000 vaccinations at our Seattle-Fire operated hubs over the past three months and with more than 76 percent of eligible Seattleites beginning the vaccination process, we are confident we can ramp down our efforts and still eventually reopen the City safely.
Our hub in West Seattle will close on June 9 and our hub in Rainier Beach on June 23. You will continue to see the Seattle Fire Department hosting pop-up vaccination clinics over the summer at schools and in the community, and we will also offer up to 700 vaccines per day at our SODO community testing and now vaccination site (3820 6th Ave. S.). While Seattle has hit some impressive milestones in our vaccination work, I know that many African American community members are still not vaccinated. I encourage you to please help your loved ones get their shot. The vaccine saves lives. And the common side effects of the vaccination are much more tolerable than dying of COVID. You can learn more about accessing the vaccine at www.seattle.gov/vaccine.
This past year has left me reflecting on all the challenges we have encountered and overcome, and all there is to be thankful for. The incredible work of testing and vaccinating so many of our residents would not be possible without the team at Seattle Fire and the City; our partnership with AMR, UW Medicine and Swedish; and most importantly, our community. I am proud of the resiliency we have shown as a City and want our residents to know that the Seattle Fire Department will always be here to serve you. I have received my vaccine, and I hope you will too, so we can all become healthier and recover together.