KIRKLAND — Firefighters noticed they were getting more frequent calls to Life Care Center of Kirkland. It wasn’t unusual for the firefighters to be dispatched to the care center, or other senior-living facilities in the city.
But the calls started to stack up, and all patients reported flu-like symptoms.
On Feb. 27, the leaders of this Eastside city of 90,000 learned one of their residents was being tested for COVID-19, the disease caused the new coronavirus.
The leaders, including City Manager Kurt Triplett, began to tally up the number of seniors being taken to the hospital from the Life Care Center and how many first responders had assisted in the transfers.
Two days later, public-health officials reported at least one death in Kirkland attributed to COVID-19. And a fifth of the city’s firefighters were in quarantine.
“We knew that this was going to be a big deal for Kirkland,” Triplett said.
Within hours, Kirkland, an affluent mid-sized suburb that until two weeks ago was best known outside of Washington as the namesake for Costco’s Kirkland Signature brand, became the epicenter of the U.S. coronavirus outbreak.
More than 60 Kirkland residents, including people staying there temporarily, have died from or been hospitalized with the virus. Nearly all of them were associated with Life Care Center. Many patients with symptoms are at EvergreenHealth, a Kirkland hospital, which has seen nearly 100 confirmed cases and 24 deaths.
Kirkland’s response to the crisis is being watched around the country, and other cities are looking to them for guidance as infections spread.
City leaders acknowledge the positives, and fear of what could still come.
“You do it with honest conversations about where we are, how we got here and how we can support people,” Mayor Penny Sweet said. “I think we are a model for how you should respond to something like this.”
Emergency departments in Colorado, Florida and New Mexico have called to ask questions: How do we prepare our firefighters? What kind of information do you share with the community? Can we use your communications materials?
Kirkland officials were the among the first to grapple with how to convey the seriousness of the virus that could be deadly for some and mild for others.
“I think the biggest challenge is just working our way through that balance,” Triplett said. “We want to make sure employees are protected, but many of our employees exist to protect the community.”
On March 2, the Monday after news of the deaths went global, 150 Kirkland employees packed into a room at City Hall. The city building wouldn’t be closed, leaders told the group, but anyone worried about their health or someone else’s could work from home. Questions ranged from the personal — “I have an elderly person at home, what do I do?” — to bigger picture — “How do we help the public?”
There are residents who think that the city could be doing more, though much of the criticism falls on state and federal agencies that they think haven’t put enough effort into Kirkland specifically.
“We are the Wuhan of North America,” said Rachel Brown, a Kirkland resident who moderates a 16,000-member Facebook group with dozens of daily posts about the outbreak. “Shouldn’t the city be telling us what clinics have COVID-19 testing available because we have had the most exposures? Shouldn’t our city have drive-through testing like South Korea does right now?”
City officials acknowledge they don’t have the means or power to do everything, and they have learned that they can’t work on normal city business for eight hours a day and then “emergency stuff in the cracks,” Triplett said. All — or most — of their energy is focused on the emergency response.
At the city’s emergency operations center in the basement of City Hall, employees last week wore bright colored vests, with labels like “operations,” “finance” and “logistics,” as part of the daily response. Six television screens broadcasted a news conference happening outside Life Care Center, a live feed of Kirkland streets and daytime TV shows.
Among that day’s to-do list for the operations center: Verify the city’s personal-protective gear allocation from the health department, call the animal shelter, order 79 travel kits of toothpaste, shampoo and razors. A logistics worker was on the phone with Amazon to check on the status of a delivery of masks.
In all, 130 employees have worked in the emergency operations center since the outbreak.
“We want to be pragmatic and proactive, not panicked,” Triplett said. “And our staff has responded.”
A City Council meeting earlier this month went on as planned, with reminders of the virus interspersed among talk on affordable housing and presentations on information technology. City leaders ratified a proclamation of emergency alongside a proclamation celebrating women’s history month.
Public comment was a reminder that life goes on. A resident spoke about nonconforming water-structure rules and dock-size restrictions. Another spoke about her accessory dwelling unit and the city’s efforts to add density in neighborhoods.
Before his comments on housing affordability, Troy Thiel thanked the city’s leaders and stressed how proud he is to be a “Kirklandian.”
“This has been a tough week for our community, and I want to say thank you all to your leadership in these very, very tough times,” he said. “It’s unprecedented, and I’m proud to be a member of this fine community.”
At the end of the five-hour meeting, Triplett said he had good news: there would be no executive session that night. The meeting adjourned at 11:22 p.m.
“Go home,” Mayor Sweet told her colleagues. “Go to bed.”