A second death from COVID-19 struck King County and the United States on Sunday, placing the Northwest at the center of a mushrooming public-health crisis. The number of confirmed cases in the county jumped to 10, while health authorities warned it would likely rise, and new research indicated the novel coronavirus may have been spreading undetected in the region for weeks.

Local health officials announced a total of seven new cases Sunday. One of them — a patient in his 70s at EvergreenHealth — died, and the remaining sixranging in age from their 40s to their 90s, were in critical condition. A patient in his 50s at EvergreenHealth died Friday, the first COVID-19 related fatality in the United States. 

Four of the new cases, including the second fatality, involved residents from Life Care, a skilled nursing facility in KirklandAll suffered from underlying health issues, according to health department officials. 

As the numbers mounted, scientists, government officials, health care providers and area residents scrambled to brace for the next development — without knowing what that might be.

For the most part, Washington residents have reacted with reserved caution. Some pharmacies and big-box stores reported runs on items such as face masks and hand-sanitizers, while local and state governments activated and manned emergency operation centers in anticipation of additional infections.

Undetected spread

Researchers looking into the genetic makeup of the virus have developed data they say suggests that COVID-19 has been spreading quietly for weeks in Washington  a possibility state health officials and the governor’s office acknowledged Sunday. 

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 A series of tweets sent by Dr. Trevor  Bedford, a genetic and infectious disease researcher at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and director of the Bedford Lab, said analysis of the genetic makeup of the COVID-19 virus indicates a case reported over the weekend appeared to be closely linked to another one reported on Jan. 19 in Snohomish County.

While it’s possible the genetic connection between the two cases is a coincidence, that scenario is unlikely, he wrote late Saturday. The genetic map was produced by scientists at the  Seattle Flu Study.

“This strongly suggests that there has been cryptic transmission in Washington State for the past six weeks,” Bedford tweeted.

Gov. Jay Inslee, who toured state testing laboratories for the virus in Snohomish County on Sunday, has been briefed by state Department of Health (DOH) doctors about Bedford’s conclusions, spokeswoman Tara Lee said.

“We are taking all of that into account as we move forward with our response,” she said. 

The state Department of Health said in a statement that it was “evaluating” Bedford’s findings and making plans for additional testing of residents who are or have been sickDOH spokesperson Jamie Nixon said.

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Nixon pointed out that national testing has only been available for six weeks and that initial guidelines limited the number of people tested to those who had traveled to China. Washington has only been testing for two days, he said. 

“It is definitely possible that COVID-19 has been circulating, with people experiencing mild symptoms just like the flu,” Nixon said. 

Bedford, in his research, suggested there may already be few hundred cases of COVID-19 in Washington, where officials have reported both the nation’s first confirmed novel coronavirus infection in January and its first death Friday.

Current cases

Health officials, so far, have identified 17 cases treated in Washington, including the two deaths10 in King County, three in Snohomish County and four in Spokane. 

King County said it has monitored more than 500 people for signs of the illness, and dozens of people have been tested in Washington state, as of Saturday.

State and local health officials and Inslee are expected to hold a news conference with additional information and updates Monday. 

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The virustechnically known as SARS-CoV-2, first emerged in December in Wuhan, China, and has since spread to more than 60 countries and infected more than 88,000 people, accordinto the World Health Organization. There have been roughly 3,000 deaths, mostly elderly or individuals with other health problems. The virus’s symptoms include fever and respiratory distress. 

Most cases, though not all, have likely been contracted through community transmission, health officials said. 

In the case of a U.S. Postal Service worker, an agency spokesman said an employee had tested positive for COVID-19 in Federal Way after traveling to South Korea. She was recovering at home in stable condition after being diagnosed Thursday, said Ernie Swanson, a U.S. Postal Service spokesman. 

The woman, who is in her 50s, works in a network distribution center, a mostly automated facility that handles and distributes packages throughout Western Washington, Swanson said. Workers at the facility rarely touch mail as they empty containers onto belts and conduct other operational duties. 

After her diagnosis, officials at the facility contacted public health officials for Seattle and King County, who recommended the center continue with normal operations, Swanson said. 

Home visits

In the wake of the Ebola virus outbreak in 2014, Harborview Medical Center created a special pathogen team to evaluate people at their homes for infection.

Registered nurse Monica Hoefsmit, left, and Krista Rietberg with Infection Control, are part of a five-member Harborview Medical Center Home Assessment Team (HAT) that is gathering testing samples from those showing symptoms of the novel coronavirus on Sunday in Seattle.  These are two of three bins of supplies they carry.   (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)
Registered nurse Monica Hoefsmit, left, and Krista Rietberg with Infection Control, are part of a five-member Harborview Medical Center Home Assessment Team (HAT) that is gathering testing samples from those showing symptoms of the novel coronavirus on Sunday in Seattle. These are two of three bins of supplies they carry. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

The team has made a dozen visits to Seattle-area homes in the past weeks, according to Vanessa Makarewicz, who leads the team as Harborview’s infection prevention-control manager.

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Makarewicz said the visits are one of the most effective ways to get samples from people who are exhibiting milder symptoms and might have had contact with a patient that has tested positive for COVID-19.

“It has kept folks out of our emergency department,” Makarewicz said.

Each sample costs about $2,500, including labor. Visits take about four hours on average, including travel time. Public Health screens patients for Makarewicz’s team to visit.

Then, teams of five with masks over their mouths, face shields or goggles, gowns and gloves arrive.

As they enter, Makarewicz said the five will wipe down door handles and other surfaces with bleach. Then, they take nose and throat samples from patients.

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A trained observer then watches for contamination as the team removes protective gear and places it in bags that remain at patients’ homes as the team leaves.

“The patients feel taken care of. We’re able to rapidly assess them and alleviate their fears,” Makarewicz said.

Residents prepare 

At four grocery stores in South Lake Union and Queen Anne, customer activity seemed typical for a Sunday afternoon. There were no major checkout lines or extremely barren shelves that sometimes occur during extreme weather conditions or major public health concerns. 

Bottles and jugs of water, canned food and frozen vegetables, and bread were selling faster, but customers said they were purchasing what they would normally buy for the week: essential food items. 

An employee at the Costco Wholesale store in Sodo said lines were longer than usual, though some frequent visitors said a chain of customers snaking around the store wasn’t out of the ordinary. 

Ellen Kahan said she wasn’t planning to stock up on groceries or take any extra precautions other than “good habits and good ol’ soap and water.” She’s had experience planning for pandemics and health concerns as a former school administrator in the Edmonds School District. 

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However, for the past few weeks, customers have been buying up items for cleaning and disinfecting skin and surfaces. 

Hand sanitizer is sold out at the Safeway store on NE 4th St. in Renton Sunday.  (Travis Ness / The Seattle TImes)
Hand sanitizer is sold out at the Safeway store on NE 4th St. in Renton Sunday. (Travis Ness / The Seattle TImes)

Jesse Bame, an assistant manager at Bartell’s, said his store in Queen Anne has been sold out of hand sanitizer and face masks for the past two to three weeks. A sign in the window alerted would-be customers that those items were out of stock. 

Shipments of hand sanitizer and face masks are not expected to be restocked until April, he said. Customers still looking for sanitizing items, in the meantime, might have better luck finding antiseptic wipes, disinfectant spray, rubbing alcohol, and soap. 

Jesse Waldie said she gathered up all the hand sanitizer in her home because she hasn’t been able to find any in stores. Waldie, who was shopping with her 4-year-old daughter Vivian, said her family has been taking other safety precautions, limiting social interactions, in light of the virus. 

“We’re mostly staying home and resting,” she said. 

 

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(Anika Varty / The Seattle Times)

Staff reporter Katherine Khashimova Long contributed to this report.