The emergence and spread of the novel coronavirus in Washington and the world has exacted a steep toll in a very few weeks, carving a path of deaths, illnesses and tense uncertainty as a global outbreak unfolds.
The virus’ relentless spiderweb has spread in the weeks since the first cases were recognized in Wuhan, China, in December, shaking world leaders and emptying streets from Shanghai to Milan to Kirkland, Washington, where residents have found themselves at the unlikely U.S. epicenter of a worldwide health crisis.
Scientists tracking the spread of the virus in Washington expect the number of cases in the state to spike over the next several weeks — just as they did in China — and warn that, while the cost we’ve paid is already steep, it’s likely going to get steeper. Already, in less than a month, society has contracted — events canceled, travel restricted, crowds avoided and downtown streets, while not empty, suddenly lack the bustle of America’s third fastest-growing metropolis.
In short, our lives have changed drastically — for some, irretrievably.
“I didn’t really expect my mother to be passing away,” said a stunned Mike Weatherill, whose 85-year-old mother fell ill last Monday while a resident at the Life Care Center of Kirkland. Two days later, Louise Weatherill, who had raised Chow Chow dogs until suffering a debilitating stroke 13 years ago, was dead. While a formal diagnosis is pending tests, Mike Weatherill, 54, has no doubt she was taken by COVID-19, the disease caused by the new virus.
“I feel like I’m in a bad dream,” he said.
Debbie de los Angeles was called at 4:15 a.m. Tuesday by a worker at Life Care, who reported her 85-year-old mother, Twilla Morin, had a fever spiking at 104 degrees. She and her husband, both in their 60s and with health problems of their own, weren’t able to visit.
“We anticipate she has the coronavirus,” the Life Care staffer said in a message. “We don’t anticipate her fighting. We just want to make sure your goal of care is to keep her here and comfortable.”
Less than 24 hours later, Morin, a onetime bookkeeper and day trader, died.
“We’re still kind of in shock,” de los Angeles said Friday. She still isn’t sure whether her mother was infected, and was waiting for autopsy results from the King County Medical Examiner’s Office. In the meantime, she said the Kent funeral home where her mom’s body was sent has told de los Angeles not to come, in case the body remains contagious.
In all, 14 of the 16 deaths confirmed in Washington as of Saturday have been linked to the care center, which has become the focal point for the coronavirus outbreak in Washington and the U.S. Aside from the deaths, officials say dozens of individuals — including a quarter of Kirkland’s firefighters and several police officers — were exposed to the virus while responding to calls for service from the nursing home as the virus spread. Only three U.S. deaths attributed to the coronavirus, in California and Florida, have occurred outside Washington.
While known exposures have been quarantined, many public-health officials and scientists believe any attempt to contain the virus is too little, too late. They project it has been spreading through the community surreptitiously since mid-January and, based on experiences in Wuhan — where the novel coronavirus likely first jumped from animals to humans and where the vast majority of cases reside — epidemiologists are anticipating a sharp spike in local cases over the next weeks and months.
What that amounts to for the vast majority of Washington and Seattle residents is an exercise in persistent hand-washing, which health officials have said is the first line of defense for preventing exposure to SARS-CoV-2 — the virus that causes COVID-19 — which attacks the lungs and is spread through coughing and sneezing.
Young, healthy people who catch the bug mostly will experience flu-like symptoms and recover after a few days. However, emerging research into the outbreak in China shows the chance of serious illness or death are significantly higher for older patients.
The large majority of those deaths — more than 3,000 — have been in China, where more than 98,000 people have been infected, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), which at this point estimates COVID-19 has a mortality rate of roughly 3.4%. The seasonal flu, by comparison, has a mortality rate of under 1%.
Particularly vulnerable are the elderly who are in poor health or suffering from underlying conditions that put them at higher risk, such as cardiopulmonary disease, obesity and diabetes. As cases continue to emerge, officials are warning that more people will die — perhaps many more.
“It’s possible that COVID-19 will be similar to a bad flu year,” wrote Seattle-based epidemiologist and public health consultant Dr. Juliana Grant in a blog Feb. 29. However, Grant — who worked for the Centers of Disease Control for more than a dozen years — said she’s more inclined to believe the toll will “be very much like” the 1918 flu pandemic, which killed as many as 50 million people worldwide and sickened roughly a quarter of the planet’s population in barely a year.
“To put that in perspective, the 1918 flu did not end civilization as we know it, but it was the second-deadliest event of the last 200 years,” Grant wrote. “It is likely that people you know will die from COVID-19.”
For many, the spreading virus has created situations and quandaries never imagined, and it can take an emotional toll that has been compounded by a sluggish response from the federal government, which initially downplayed the potential spread of the virus and has been unable to keep up with demands for tests to determine who has been infected and how extensively it has spread.
Nowhere has the fallout of the spreading infection been felt like in Kirkland, the community where the Life Care Center is located, although in some ways the city boasts attributes that have lessened the impact: The mid-sized suburb is affluent, with a relatively small percentage of elderly residents. Many Kirklanders work in tech jobs that make it easy to work from home. In 2015, city leaders put together a 145-page comprehensive emergency management plan that outlines, among many other things, the city’s role in the event of a disease outbreak.
“You always say ‘some day.’ Then you’re going: ‘this is why we needed to do this,’” City Manager Kurt Triplett said.
But the emergency plan didn’t include instructions on how to continue operations after being thrust into the global spotlight. Until now, Kirkland had stood out as the one-time headquarters of Costco and the namesake of the big-box store’s Kirkland Signature brand. Recently, Triplett found himself being interviewed about coronavirus on CNN.
Kristin Dorwin is fairly certain that she, her family and her Kirkland neighbors have been exposed to the virus, somehow. The mother of her daughter’s friend works at EvergreenHealth, the Kirkland hospital where many of the sick were taken, and was in contact with patients. The high school where the family attends sporting events has students who attend classes at Lake Washington Institute of Technology, where a faculty member tested positive for COVID-19.
Everyone is on edge, she said.
“The general consensus is that most of us have been exposed,” said Dorwin, who lives in the Finn Hill neighborhood of Kirkland, about three miles from Life Care Center. “It’s out there, and they’re just not testing. There’s no way to know the extent of the spread.”
One question that has unnerved residents: How did the virus get to Kirkland in the first place? Health officials haven’t yet identified Kirkland’s patient zero, or whether that person had traveled elsewhere.
“It’s very odd to be in the spotlight of all this and have the rest of the United States worried about us,” said Dorwin, who moved to the city 13 years ago.
The possibility of passing it to someone else is what worries Dorwin, the Kirkland resident. Her family members don’t have any underlying health conditions, but her kids’ great-grandmothers are in their 90s and live in retirement communities. She’s also concerned about the government’s stumbling response to testing for infections.
“It undermines trust in the establishment,” she said. “Are you helping nurses, do they have enough masks? The lack of testing creates that additional sense of worry.”
The outbreak has forced some in the state to consider previously unlikely scenarios. Andrew Black of Yakima said he has suddenly found himself concerned about his mother and step-dad, both in their 70s, both suffering from health problems. His stepfather recently had heart surgery and his mother hip surgery. Black, 49, said he’s worried not only that they are vulnerable, but also about what he would do if they got sick and were placed in isolation, which has been the protocol.
“I won’t even be able to visit,” he said. “It just seems like a very lonely way to die.”
Black also worries about Yakima’s ability to deal with an outbreak. In January, one of the city’s two hospitals, Astria Regional Medical Center, closed due to bankruptcy. Black doesn’t know whether one hospital would be sufficient to handle an outbreak in Yakima, but he thinks the city may find out soon. A basketball tournament got underway last week in Yakima, drawing players from all over the state.
The uncertainty is present even in the medical profession, where health care providers are themselves looking for more answers about the disease. Their concerns are compounded by the stress of trying to keep themselves safe while in close proximity to the sick, especially for providers who are themselves more vulnerable, and the fear of unwittingly passing the virus on to patients who already have health problems.
That was Dr. Tyra Fainstad’s worry when last week she developed a cough, runny nose, sore throat and a fever that spiked to 100.8. She works for a hospital-associated clinic.
She wanted to find out if she had the virus but at that point the federal government was only allowing testing for people who had traveled to countries with mass outbreaks like China, or who had symptoms and been in contact with others known to be exposed to the virus.
It was baffling to Fainstad, who said that, ideally, front-line health care workers would be screened all the time. She pointed out that many doctors, like herself, are responsible for vulnerable patients, including people with cancer and those receiving transplants.
“You could be shedding the virus and could potentially kill people,” she said. “That’s what’s keeping me up at night.”
She left work immediately after her symptoms appeared.
She was not worried about her 4- and 2-year-old children. “Thank God this virus is not dangerous for kids” (if they are otherwise healthy), she said.
But during the daytime, so as not to infect their nanny, she was sequestering herself in her laundry room outfitted with a makeshift bed.
By the end of the week, she heard her employer was setting up a testing site for its providers, and she was hoping to find out soon if she had the virus.
Fainstad’s frustrations are shared by others who have fallen sick in the past few weeks and want to know if they’ve contracted COVID-19, but can’t get a test.
A woman in her late 50s with a history of respiratory problems, who insisted on anonymity out of concern that her job could be negatively affected by speaking out publicly, described how she was passed between doctors and Public Health — Seattle & King County without getting tested because the tests were not as widespread as public health officials have let on.
The woman said she works at a large company, which she refused to identify. Her workplace has at least one confirmed case of COVID-19, she said.
“This county is the epicenter and we don’t have tests,” she said over the phone between sharp coughing fits. “We’re definitely not seeing what we heard about there being enough tests.”
Public health officials, in an email response to questions about the woman’s claims, acknowledged the current “capacity for testing in Washington state is inadequate for the number of people who want to be tested. Therefore, only people at highest risk for serious illness are likely to be tested.” Officials with the agency are hopeful that more tests will arrive and ease the burden any day now.
Although the health department fields calls on a hotline from anyone who believes they’ve been exposed to the virus, it does not usually conduct testing. That’s done primarily at health care providers’ offices, a spokesman said.
Barbara Johnson, a retired Bellingham resident, started hearing all about the new coronavirus from a former neighbor who is a doctor from Wuhan. The doctor still had family and friends there, some of whom died, Johnson said.
“She was telling us ‘this is a big deal,’” and that it was coming to Washington, said Johnson, 69. She wasn’t so worried about her husband and herself, both healthy, but was “more concerned that nobody was concerned.”
Then, her husband became sick in late January after returning from a scuba diving trip to the Philippines, just as that country — popular with Chinese tourists — was reporting its first suspected cases. He wore a mask on the plane, but fell ill with a fever within a day of arriving home.
Johnson hasn’t been tested, but instead just stayed home for two weeks, although he was only ill for a couple of days. “It could have just been the flu,” Johnson said.
Faced with the unknown, it’s easy for people to fall into a cycle of worry and focus on negative outcomes in repetitive “rumination cycles,” said Dr. Michele Bedard-Gilligan, an associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Washington. She said the antidote, in these cases, is focusing on what you can control and doing something positive to counterbalance the stress.
For instance, Bedard-Gilligan said she attended a couple of children’s birthday parties over the weekend where an increased amount of hand-washing and expanded use of sanitizer by the partygoers was noticeable.
“Focus on those things that we can control, that do lower risk,” Bedard-Gilligan said. “But also recognize that we’re probably not able to protect ourselves 100%.”
“We need to try to remind ourselves of the realistic side of things and don’t let the fear take over,” she said.
Seattle Times staff reporters Ryan Blethen, Patrick Malone and Asia Fields contributed to this report.