Audit finds King County responded well to pandemic, but could have done better . Photo courtesy of CDC.

King County pandemic response was strong, but lessons to be learned for future emergencies

King County’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic was well-executed in some ways, despite difficult circumstances, but gaps remained in safety, and overall organization was lacking in some areas, a new audit released Tuesday found.

The report, prepared by the King County Auditor’s Office, reviewed employee safety, remote work, controls over federal emergency funding, customer service, furloughs, and voluntary separation.

Though many positive outcomes were found in the audit, the report also outlined several ways the county could improve its operations to be more successful in future emergencies.

Among the audit’s findings:

County leaders and staff took many actions to ensure county services continued under difficult circumstances and were responsive to real-time audit feedback about employee safety, customer service, and federal spending. The county can take what it learned during the pandemic to be more prepared for future emergencies.

While there was executive level guidance for safety, agencies and work groups were left to implement independently and there was not centralized oversight or coordination to ensure a consistent approach to safety.

Survey respondent feedback in fall 2020 reflected that employee experience and confidence in safety measures varied across the county. While employees in some agencies reacted more positively, others expressed serious concerns. For example, employees cited coworkers’ failure to wear masks or properly social distance in close-proximity work situations. Interviews with agency staff and safety documentation showed that there may have been a lack of specific protocols or steps taken in these areas to ensure safety practice were being implemented.

County locations or functions that required the participation of multiple branches of government or several agencies were more difficult settings to implement safety measures, potentially limiting risk reduction for involved employees.

The County issued some guidance and resources for employees in response to the inequitable impact of COVID-19 on Black, Indigenous, and people of color but there were opportunities to fully gather data and monitor for ways to reduce equity impacts to employee safety during the pandemic.

While the county ultimately obtained the PPE it needed, there was a lack of coordination – especially early in the pandemic – that could have capitalized on existing resources, expertise and buying power, reducing duplication of efforts and frustrations experienced by various agencies and departments.

The report also included six recommendations ranging from improvements to safety protocols to central, structured oversight to ensure agencies and work groups all met the same standards. In addition, the Auditor’s Office published interim communications over the course of the pandemic to support the county in implementing improvements in real time.


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