The long trial isn’t quite over yet, but one verdict is already in: Nobody knows how to pandemic like Seattle.
Whether it’s our rule-following nature, the demographics of the city, the Seattle “freeze,” our outdoorsiness, our tech culture, our wealth, or maybe just biological or geographic luck, it’s now apparent that something about Seattle made this place an almost perfect redoubt against a once-in-a-lifetime invader.
The news this past week that Seattle has become the “most vaccinated city” — the first of the 30 largest U.S. metros to reach 70% fully vaxxed — is just the capper to a curious 16-month odyssey. We started out as Ground Zero for an infectious disease outbreak, but then watched as it took off and slammed everywhere else much harder than it ever did here.
“It would not have been possible without our residents’ commitment to protecting themselves,” Mayor Jenny Durkan said this past week, about the vaccination news.
Was it something about us? I imagine people in other places also would like to protect themselves. But the story here really is an outlier, even extraordinary, and needs further study.
Consider: Despite being the first U.S. epicenter, Seattle has ended up with the lowest case and death rates of any big U.S. city, save for Honolulu. The total death rate to date from COVID in Seattle, 55.9 per 100,000 residents, is 25% lower than the rate in Washington state, which itself has a rate less than half of America’s.
If the nation had fought off the virus as well as Seattle did, America would have suffered 413,000 fewer deaths as of Friday.
Seattle just never had that many COVID cases, compared to other places. Per capita, America has suffered three times as much COVID disease as Seattle has. Seattle’s total rate of 3,470 cases per 100,000 residents is lower than that of every U.S. state except Hawaii. Even Alaska, with about the same population as Seattle though spread out over a gazillion more square miles, had a case rate nearly three times higher.
On Friday, Seattle reported just four new cases. How have we, mostly, escaped?
Some have speculated our city and state’s governmental and public health responses were superior. Could be, though there’s also been a slew of snafus, from a botched vaccine rollout to masks sitting unused in warehouses to breakdowns in contact tracing.
Maybe Seattleites are just naturally healthier to begin with? Maybe techies excel at quarantining. Maybe it’s something about the city’s “Scando-Asian” heritage; most of the Scandinavian and Asian countries have generally tended to avoid big coronavirus outbreaks, too.
It’s like we were unwittingly training for this, for decades.
“Many people here practice social distancing as a way of life — even without a pandemic,” the Seattle writer Knute Berger wrote about our frigid behavioral ways.
There’s a new study out, covering the whole state, not just Seattle, that may shed some light. It’s about WA Notify, the coronavirus app for phones. The app is a way to possibly notify you if you’ve been near someone else who is using WA Notify and who reports they’ve tested positive for coronavirus — even in anonymous situations, such as at the grocery store.
Long story short: We were one of the last places to introduce such an app, in late November, long after many other states and countries had them up and running. Yet researchers have found we still signed up and used the COVID notification app faster and better than almost any other place.
“By the end of April 2021, 25% of the state’s population had activated WA Notify, one of the highest adoption rates in the country,” UW researchers found.
But here’s the key part: The app relies on users to voluntarily reveal if they test positive for the virus, so the system can alert others. Whoever gets these alerts is then called upon to do the right thing, which is self-quarantine and get tested. People here apparently did all that — to the point that 35,000 COVID alerts were sent out in four months, averting an estimated 6,240 COVID cases from ever happening and saving about 80 lives, a different UW and Washington Department of Health study has concluded.
I wrote some columns last year about how Americans — unlike, say, Canadians — might just be too unruly and individualistic for a pandemic. Not Seattleites, though: We’re ruly. For an anarchistic jurisdiction, we’re still the types, deep down, who follow the instructions from the app. What the coronavirus loves is shouting and singing and hugging. It does not thrive on people who silently wait for the light to change before crossing.
There’s a pitched debate right now whether lockdowns, mask mandates and other COVID restrictions worked, or not. I would love to see more study, if it’s even possible, about whether it’s the cultural or community identity of a place that really ended up dictating the virus’s spread. Seattle’s record practically begs for it to be Exhibit A.
Peak Seattle, or I guess peak Northwest, was once again reached this past week when our “joints for jabs” program made the national news. Crazy Seattle, it’s giving out free pot if you get the vaccine! But then we escalated that to even peaker Seattle — when the pot giveaway idea got bogged down in a bureaucratic debate, before a state commission, about the … rules.
That’s how you pandemic right there, America. Nobody does it better.
Correction: This article was changed to reflect that the study on WA Notify was done by researchers at UW and Washington State Department of Health, not UW and WSU.