We all felt it, a sense of foreboding. The news on that winter night said one-quarter of the residents and 25 staff members at a Kirkland long-term care facility had COVID-19. It was Feb. 29, 2020, and the virus was not only in America. It had come to Washington state.

My life’s work is caring for some of our most vulnerable citizens. I am a geriatrician working with the frail elderly, specifically in post-acute and long-term care. I’ve never worked at that Kirkland facility, but we’re a small community, and hearing the news that night cut straight to my heart. I’ve always known that any pandemic would most likely have a devastating effect on our elders. Fortunately, many nursing facilities have dedicated staff who work with protocols that keep patients safe. It’s also true that, tragically, any place where vulnerable people are close to each other is a dangerous environment for the spread of viruses.

And that threat continues. Though President Joe Biden declared the pandemic over, COVID still is endangering our elders. What we’ve learned here in Washington can inform how we keep these vulnerable community members safe.

Having the first known U.S. cases of COVID meant we didn’t have a roadmap. Despite years of theorizing about a pandemic, now we were amid one, and all of America wondered how Washington state would respond. We now know a lot about how COVID spreads. We know how to treat and prevent it. In early 2020, we didn’t know any of that.

We had to both do a great job and act fast. I’m the president of the Washington State Society of Post-Acute and Long-Term Care Medicine. My patients and their families rely on us. Our challenges included battling a shortage of protective equipment for our staff and residents, and finding ways to identify and care for affected patients. In the middle of this, we made the painful decision to lock down long-term care facilities, keeping our patients from their families. My heart was broken, seeing the people outside waving to their loved ones inside.

As tragic as our COVID death toll is, it could be much worse in Washington. It was worse in most places. According to data compiled by The New York Times, in terms of population, of the 50 states, Arizona is the closest in size to Washington. Arizona suffered more than twice as many COVID-related deaths. Virginia, a state with 11% more people than Washington, had 52% more COVID-related deaths. The undeniable fact is what we did here worked, and it worked by following medicine and science. Washingtonians should be proud of our success.


It all began with Gov. Jay Inslee’s first action: to bring together expert professionals from all disciplines. It was a wide-ranging group with varied experiences and sometimes even conflicting priorities. As a group, it was gratifying how well we worked together. No egos, no turf wars. We compared data and shared what was working and what wasn’t. I’m convinced that the relationships we forged in the early days of the pandemic changed the trajectory of the illness in Washington.

Washington’s strategy wasn’t without controversy. Political lines separated us, and mixed messages from some leaders caused some people to doubt the science. As medical professionals, we had to be fearless in the face of the infection. We had to move forward, using science as our compass, even if that meant going against public opinion. Policymakers and medical professionals came together, and we developed momentum.

It wasn’t easy, and in no way do I want to minimize the individual efforts made by everyone in this state. We saw and felt it all: masks, social distancing, closed restaurants, remote learning and loss of income. The numbers show we acted on the correct information and saved lives. Saint Teresa of Calcutta (formerly Mother Teresa) once said, “None of us, including me, ever do great things. But we can all do small things with great love, and together we can do something wonderful.”

It’s not over. I know we’ve all heard that. No matter how much we want it to be, it’s still with us. Omicron, and the BA.5 subvariant, are even more contagious. It’s worth noting that the highest number of COVID-related hospitalizations wasn’t in 2020 or even 2021. It was in January of this year. The risk of infection will rise again in the winter, and the elderly and frail will likely be hardest hit. Another January is coming, and we cannot let our guard down.

We’ve all grown weary of this, but we must keep a step ahead in our battle against COVID. Not only should you get the COVID booster, but you should fearlessly engage your family, friends and neighbors about it. We need to unite again to protect our most vulnerable and put this virus down. In the beginning, we didn’t have any weapons to take into this battle, but now we have a new vaccine that targets the omicron variant.

Just like we have all come together and agreed that stop signs and traffic signals keep us safe, we all need to rally around the evidence that the vaccines work. We do this as a community because that’s what communities do for each other.