Six people in Washington have now died from COVID-19, the illness caused by a new coronavirus, state and King County officials announced Monday, as they said that an extraordinary effort to contain and manage the health crisis is moving toward a new stage.
While stressing most people will experience mild symptoms, the officials say more cases are inevitable and they will soon stop intensively following up on each one. Rather, they will focus on outbreaks and giving individuals, schools and other institutions the best advice on how to minimize illness.
“We’re pivoting toward a more community-based approach,” Jeff Duchin, health officer for Public Health – Seattle & King County, said at a news conference.
At the same time, King County Executive Dow Constantine said he has signed an emergency declaration and is in final negotiations to buy a motel where patients can recover in isolation.
“My real estate people tell me it is all but done,” Constantine said of the sale. The motel, which the county has not yet identified, should be available for patients by the end of the week, he said.
The county is also in the process of siting modular units, aimed primarily at homeless people who need a place to recover.
As of noon Monday, 18 people in King and Snohomish counties had been diagnosed with COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, according to the state Department of Health (DOH). Six people have died.
Another 231 people are being closely monitored by public health officials, according to DOH. That number includes close contacts of already confirmed cases and individuals who have returned from China within the past two weeks.
Amid the growing number of confirmed cases and deaths, Gov. Jay Inslee and state health Secretary John Wiesman called Monday for legislators to set aside $100 million to help respond to the crisis.
The request for $100 million is a sharp increase compared to the amount lawmakers had earlier been considering. A Senate proposal approved last Thursday included $10 million for coronavirus response. A House budget plan included $5 million specifically for virus response, and another $14.5 million more broadly for the public health system.
In the 42 days of the state’s response to coronavirus, the state Department of Health (DOH) has spent $2.3 million, which Wiesman said amounted to about $60,000 daily.
100 to 150 DOH staff are working on the response.
All the deaths occurred at EvergreenHealth Medical Center in Kirkland, according to Dr. Ettore Palazzo, chief medical and quality officer for the hospital. Five of those were King County residents and one a Snohomish County resident.
The death of a man in his 40s was the first for Snohomish County, according to the that county’s Health District.
Of the remaining deaths, most were older people: two women in their 80s and two men in their 70s. All but one of those had underlying health conditions, making them more vulnerable to the disease.
One, however, was a man in his 50s, who also had an underlying chronic health condition. Health officials did not say if the Snohomish County man in his 40s who died had any preexisting conditions.
The majority of King County’s cases are also linked to the Life Care Center in Kirkland, and four of the people who died were residents of the nursing home, according to Duchin. Officials have previously said 50 residents of the nursing home have shown possible signs of the virus.
Asked why Kirkland has become such a hotspot for the illness, Duchin said he didn’t think there was any particular reason. “A lot of it is random,” he said.
It also may be that officials know of more cases in Kirkland because EvergreenHealth, according to Duchin, has been very aggressive about testing for the virus.
However, a genetics and infectious disease expert at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center said Tuesday that the outbreak in Snohomish County likely has been moving quietly through the community since mid-January, with Snohomish County as the center. Trevor Bedford said that the transmission likely began with an individual whose infection was missed because early guidelines limited testing to individuals who had traveled from China.
Bedford, who has been tweeting about his findings, concluded that the first case of COVID-19 in Washington was so genetically similar to the second case reported on Feb. 23 that they almost certainly came from the same source. On Monday, he said as many as 570 Washington residents may have contracted the virus, many of them without knowing it.
“We believe this particular transmission chain will have a foci in Snohomish County,” he wrote. “We’re working as fast as possible to understand extent of spread in the greater Seattle area.”
Bedford said his recent analysis remains preliminary, and that he will refine his findings as more data becomes available.
A handful of schools canceled classes to disinfect their schools Monday, many in what they dubbed “an abundance of caution,” some of them after students had already boarded their morning buses. The North Kitsap School District, for example, announced Monday morning that Kingston High School would be closed because a student there was being tested for the virus. The district told parents they were shipping students already on their way to the school to Choice Academy.
Overall, there were at least 13 closures statewide, with a few districts preemptively shuttering schools on Tuesday to train teachers on how to teach online in case of future closures.
Health officials indicated that their response is evolving. At this point, they said, they were not recommending widespread closure of schools or cancellation of public events.
“We have to carefully weigh the risks and benefits,” Duchin said. “There are so many unknowns.”
Instead, officials emphasized individual precautions: washing hands frequently, avoiding touching your face, staying home when sick and perhaps even staying away from crowds, especially for people over 60 and those with health conditions.
Some people will have a harder time coping with the new coronavirus, including people who are homeless. The modular units planned in King County are aimed at helping them, and any others who for whatever reason don’t have a home to recover in, according to Leo Flor, director of King County’s Department of Community and Human Services.
These units formerly housed oil workers in Texas, Constantine said. The county bought them before the COVID-19 outbreak to serve the homeless population, and used them to set up the Eagle Village complex for Native Americans in Sodo.
Fourteen such units, now in storage, will be placed on publicly owned parking lots and other available land around the county, including Seattle, as part of the coronavirus effort, the executive said. The four-room units could house more than 100 people in all.
Unlike the modular units, the motel will not be specifically for patients who are homeless, according to Mark Ellerbrook, the county’s Housing & Community Development director.
Even while they stressed how seriously they were taking the situation, and the uncertainty around how it will develop, officials seemed eager to avoid scaring people into paralysis.
“We understand people still need to carry on with their lives,” Duchin said.
Seattle Times staff reporters Joseph O’Sullivan, Sydney Brownstone, Dahlia Bazzaz and Mike Carter contributed to this story.