Seattle has long been the best place to have a heart attack, thanks to its pioneering Medic One service. The region is also one of the best places to have cancer because of its world-class care and research.
Washington should also be among the best places anywhere to experience the first outbreak of a dangerous new strain of coronavirus that doesn’t yet have a specific treatment.
Whether the region’s leadership and health-care systems are passing this latest test is an open question. The response was encouraging when the nation’s first COVID-19 patient was identified in Everett on Jan. 20 and successfully treated. But public confidence was shaken when the virus erupted later at a Kirkland nursing facility with deadly results.
By late last week, public officials had made positive moves. Local and state agencies mustered all front-lines resources, including supplies and personnel to respond. The Washington Legislature tapped its rainy day fund for $100 million for the crisis. Congress approved nearly $8 billion for the national response.
Decisions by Gov. Jay Inslee and Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler to help cover the cost of virus testing and related medical visits were welcome. Cost shouldn’t be an impediment to those who need care, can’t afford it or lack insurance.
Rapid work by state officials, King County Executive Dow Constantine and others to establish quarantine facilities was swift and necessary. These facilities are needed for people who can’t self-quarantine at home, in a dorm or homeless shelter.
Much less encouraging are communication failures at the Kirkland nursing facility. Victims’ families and others say they received a dearth of information, or conflicting advice, and little responsiveness from health agencies. That’s unacceptable. There must be better coordination of outreach and clarity for those immediately affected.
Belatedly, federal and state governments are expanding testing capacity. This should have been further along. The outbreak was known in China for months, reached the Seattle area by Jan. 20 and declared a global emergency Jan. 30. Capacity may still be too limited.
On this front, the University of Washington has stepped up. UW Medicine began working on a SARS-CoV-2 test in January and was authorized Feb. 29 to begin testing, dramatically increasing capacity.
Swift and comprehensive local responses are a reminder that the Seattle area is not only the U.S. coronavirus epicenter, but also a center of global efforts to track, treat and eradicate stubborn illnesses affecting billions in the developing world.
Our region is also blessed with resources and expertise, including two decades of tremendous work by Bill and Melinda Gates to combat those threats abroad, and the cluster of health researchers and organizations they’ve funded give Seattle an extraordinary pool of expertise.
Public officials must take full advantage of these local resources as they respond to this crisis. The Gates Foundation last month committed $100 million to the global fight against COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, then added $5 million for the local response last week.
The foundation also supports the Seattle Flu Study started in 2018. It’s led by Seattle’s Brotman Baty Institute, run by UW Medicine, Seattle Children’s and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and received $20 million from Bill Gates.
This study was already underway and creating resources to detect and respond to infectious disease. The study quickly pivoted to help identify cases of COVID-19, using its samples from people with flu symptoms and its own test to identify a Snohomish County teen who was the state’s first case of community transmission.
This crisis has exposed some supply-chain problems and shortfalls in public-health funding in recent years. As the situation develops, leaders must be swift and deliberate in their response, marshaling resources and learning from past missteps. Much responsibility remains with individuals who must do their part to limit transmission by washing hands, avoiding crowds and contacting medical providers if symptoms arise.
This is perhaps the greatest test of the region’s leadership and reputation for being a good place to get sick. How Seattle fares should inform the state’s preparedness for future threats, the nation’s response to the novel coronavirus and the priority given to improving global health going forward.