Cheney Free Press -

By John McCallum
Managing Editor 

Redefining first responders

Medical Lake seeks to add municipal workers to those deemed essential, and thus move up in vaccination list


Last updated 1/14/2021 at 6:23pm

WEST PLAINS — Medical Lake City Administrator Doug Ross admits that when it comes to defining city workers is essential workers — and thus moving them further up the COVID-19 vaccination ladder — he is pretty much a lone voice crying out in the wilderness.

Ross and Mayor Shirley Maike broached the subject last Tuesday, Jan. 5, during the City Council’s report section, with Maike telling members they had been in discussions with officials at Spokane Regional Health District about including at least some municipal workers as first responders, and thus make them eligible to receive either the Pfizer or the Moderna coronavirus vaccines earlier than projected.

“If you think about it, they’re essential workers, first responders as we had a good example of this weekend with a water main break,” Maike said.

In a Jan. 11 email, Ross said the issue last weekend was a service line break leading to a homeowner’s water meter at a residence in South Lake Terrace. While somewhat insignificant, there was so much groundwater filling the small hole dug to repair the break that the city had to hire two Vactor trucks to continuously suck water out of the hole in order to effect repairs.

But the issue reinforced for Ross that need for city employees to be considered first responders in some cases, and essential workers in others in light of the size of the Medical Lake’s municipal force. The city maintenance shop has six workers to do everything from fix water line ruptures to plowing snow, while the wastewater treatment plant has four workers.

Should a case of COVID-19 be diagnosed among any of these employees, it could at a minimum require the others have to quarantine at home for an extended period of time until test results came back negative or a positive case was determined, thus requiring a longer period of isolation and treatment.

“Water testing has to be done to ensure the water is safe for consumption,” he said. “If the four wastewater treatment plant employees are unable to conduct the required daily testing and plant operations, the wastewater being discharged from the plant could pose a health risk.”

Ross said this also applied to employees at City Hall, six of whom are engaged in the daily operations of the city while a seventh, the building inspector, is regularly up at Eastern State Hospital doing new construction inspections. If COVID-19 should impact these employees, the city would essentially shut down its daily operations.

With about two dozen employees, Medical Lake’s size makes it vulnerable to potential problems stemming from a coronavirus outbreak. Other West Plains cities are equally leery when it comes to such possibilities, but in better positions with regards to staffing.

“What we’ve done is really isolate the crews,” Cheney City Administrator Mark Schuller.

Of the city’s 87 employees, about 45 work in what might be considered field departments — the Light Department and Public Works, which includes water, wastewater, sewer, solid waste and streets. Several employees split time between the two departments, but about eight in Light work in the shop or field while six work at the treatment plant and seven in solid waste/sewer and five in water are in field positions.

Schuller said they have split employees into “A” and “B” cohorts and rotate them through work schedules. They also limit one employee per truck during field operations.

With 65 full-time employees, including 13 in the area of water, sewer and streets, Airway Heights has taken a similar approach.

“We have been planning for these concerns and have processes to minimize the possibility of widespread infection,” City Manager Albert Tripp wrote in an email. “Additionally, we have worked on contingencies in case a significant part of our staff becomes ill.”

Those contingencies include cross-training of some employees, using technology to monitor and control certain functions, particularly at the reclamation plant, and working with partners in case mutual aid is needed.

Even with these measures and others including education about the virus, cases have occurred. Cheney coronavirus coordinator Keri MacDonald said the city has seen four cases total over various departments during the pandemic, including one current employee who is out with the virus while two are in quarantine because family members have tested positive. All of these cases came from exposures outside the work place.

Ross said they will continue to try to move Medical Lake employees up the vaccination ladder as much as possible, getting names on lists should others decline to get vaccinated. And they will continue to work with the Spokane Regional Health District to try to get municipal workers included as essential.

“Now, understand nobody seems to agree with me and certainly not the Spokane Regional Health District, so I’m sure I’m on a bit of an island thinking this way, but so be it,” Ross added.

John McCallum can be reached at

Author Bio

John McCallum, Managing Editor

John McCallum is an award-winning journalist who has been with the Cheney Free Press for over 20 years. He has received 10 Washington Newspaper Publisher Association awards for journalism and photography, including first place awards for Best Investigative, Best News and back-to-back awards in Best Breaking News categories. He has been serving as editor of the Spokane Valley News Herald since March 2020.

Phone: 509-235-6184
Contact John McCallum


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