KIRKLAND — It was 299 days ago that they found the virus at EvergreenHealth in Kirkland.
They followed a doctor’s hunch, ordered a test they thought was a long shot and in doing so identified the first outbreak in the nation of the mysterious disease that would become known as COVID-19, setting off a cascade of events none could have predicted.
Schools closed. Businesses shuttered. The governor ordered people to stay home. The coronavirus would upend American life.
“A whirlwind,” said Dr. Francis Riedo, medical director of infectious disease at EvergreenHealth, who helped identify the outbreak.
And on Wednesday, the hospital that became the early face of the fight against COVID-19 marked a milestone, beginning inoculations from a supply of 3,000 doses of Moderna’s vaccine.
For 299 days, they’ve been playing “defense” against the disease, Riedo said during a news conference Wednesday. Now, it was time to go on the offensive.
“This has been a long time coming,” he said.
Courtney Pittman, a nurse, and Gene Wabinga, an environmental services technician who cleaned the room of the hospital’s first COVID-19 patient, were the first two staffers inoculated against the coronavirus, receiving their shots in a second-floor hallway.
Wabinga said it felt good to know he had an extra layer of protection from the virus when he went home to his family.
Riedo said he hoped to administer the remainder of the doses over the next 10 days. The hospital has reserved about 20% of its allotment for emergency responders.
The hospital expected to receive doses of Pfizer’s vaccine last week. But first, federal and state officials had to sort out confusion over how many doses were allocated to Washington state, leaving EvergreenHealth administrators and staffers wondering when their day would come.
“It was hard. Part of it was the uncertainty. It seemed like no one had information,” Riedo said.
Staffers lined up in the hallway Wednesday night waiting for their turn to get a dose of the vaccine.
“It will be a little more of a security blanket,” Pittman said.
Statewide, more than 30,000 people received a dose of Pfizer’s vaccine during the first week of rollout, state officials said during a Wednesday news briefing. More than 1 million doses of vaccine have now been administered nationwide.
The state had expected to receive more than 400,000 doses by the end of the year, but revised that figure Wednesday to more than 330,000, citing a miscommunication with federal officials about shipments. State officials said they expect more doses each month and could be done vaccinating workers in health care and residents of long-term care facilities by the end of January, an urgent project amid relatively high coronavirus transmission.
State officials are beginning to see promising signs in data and disease modeling for virus cases, hospitalizations and deaths, suggesting that the fall spike in cases has begun to level off ahead of the Christmas and New Year’s holidays.
“We’re starting to see a plateau, or downturn,” said Dr. Scott Lindquist, state epidemiologist. “We’re not out of the woods yet.”
Health officials pleaded with the public ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday to avoid family gatherings, fearing they would spur transmission, accelerate spiking case numbers and send more people to hospitals with COVID-19 than the facilities could handle.
Instead, it seems Washingtonians have begun to flatten the curve.
“We are seeing a downturn since after the holidays in the number of tests done and a downturn in the number of positives,” Lindquist said Wednesday, adding that hospital admissions have been flat since the beginning of December.
The seven-day rolling average of positive tests for coronavirus has fallen from about 2,650 cases each day on Nov. 23 to about 2,295 on Dec. 11, the most recent day state data was complete. Weekly new hospital admissions across Washington state reached about 780 the week of Nov. 22 and then leveled off.
Mary Shepler, EvergreenHealth’s chief nursing officer, said the organization “felt good” going into the holiday weekend, comparing the strain on Evergreen’s facilities to the demand during influenza season.
Influenza has not been circulating in Washington state, which could be the result of the measures the public is taking to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Still, Lindquist said Washington remains in a “precarious” situation and though transmission is plateauing, its prevalence remains much higher than last spring and has not decreased enough.
Even though the vaccine is here, health officials urged continued caution.
“We’re hoping, if everyone stays home from the holidays, if everyone’s wearing a mask, if everyone social-distances, that we can drive this rate lower,” Lindquist said.