Everybody has their moment. That day, event or instant when this weird virus they’d been reading about turned concrete, started to seem different, bigger.
A year ago Sunday, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan was the grand marshal in a downtown Girl Scouts parade to promote their new Lemon-Ups cookie. “They’re absolutely delicious,” she told a man dressed in a lemon costume.
A few hours later, she got a call. A man in Kirkland had died of COVID-19, at the time the first confirmed death in the country. And there were more positive tests around the county.
“It will be seared in my memory forever,” Durkan said last week. “That was my first big ‘oh no’ moment.”
The city, Durkan said, had done a couple of exercises the month prior, based on old plans from the H1N1 flu outbreak, but public health officials still thought the risk was low. And things didn’t immediately change.
It would be nearly two weeks before Durkan joined Gov. Jay Inslee and other local leaders for an in-person news conference to order a halt to all gatherings of more than 250 people. Things escalated quickly from there. Soon canceled, among other things: In-person news conferences, schools, restaurants, sports and nonessential businesses.
For most of the past year, Durkan has carried in a pocket of her briefcase her handwritten notes from an early March call with a researcher, showing the potential skyward trajectory of the virus if no action was taken.
“I carried it with me every day, when I would have conversations and say, ‘This is the number we can’t reach,'” Durkan said.
A year later, after 357 deaths in Seattle, 1,394 in King County and 4,956 in Washington, there are some things Durkan wishes she knew then, and things she wishes had been done differently. She wishes we’d mandated masks sooner. She wishes the federal government had led a “unified approach” to the virus. And she wishes she — and everybody else — knew how long it was all going to last.
“Our whole mantra was ‘flatten the curve,’ and that was the right thing to do because it meant fewer people dying and not overwhelming our health care system, but it didn’t give everybody what they needed to know, what would happen next,” Durkan said.
But, a year into the pandemic, Durkan has no regrets about decisions she’s made or actions the city has taken. Seattle has the lowest number of coronavirus cases, per capita, among the nation’s 30 largest cities, and has performed the second-most coronavirus tests, according to Durkan’s office.
“We made really hard decision but even in hindsight I think we made the right ones,” she said
The city’s Fire Department has transformed, in part, into a coronavirus testing crew, administering more than 650,000 free tests at five sites around the city. That effort is now undergoing a slow transition, from testing to vaccinating.
Seattle Fire Department medics have given out more than 7,800 shots since the city first started receiving vaccine doses in January. That’s only a small fraction of the vaccinations given out in the city, most of which come from health care providers. But the city says they’re building the infrastructure to get shots into arms once supply is less limited.
On Thursday, at a pop-up clinic at the Filipino Community Center in Hillman City, Fire Department medics gave out about 300 first doses of the Moderna vaccine and volunteers gave everyone who got a shot a box lunch that included yogurt and traditional Filipino dishes — pancit, siopao, lumpia.
Agnes Navarro, director of the Filipino center, said they’d been calling people individually to get seniors who are eligible, but perhaps don’t speak English or aren’t internet savvy, to the pop-up clinic.
“Getting the right people here, it’s such an enormous amount of work,” said Lt. Brian Wallace, who oversees the Fire Department’s testing and vaccine programs. “They’re really helping us dissolve the technological barrier.”
Durkan, stopping by for about 30 minutes of hellos and interviews, circulated the small auditorium bumping elbows and taking pictures.
“We’ve got to keep a little bit apart,” she said, posing for snapshots. “Thanks for giving people hope in their arms,” she told medics.
“I learned to dance the Macarena in this room,” she quipped.
It’s the seventh pop-up clinic, the city has run, with plans to soon open more permanent vaccination sites. About 70% of vaccines the city has administered have gone to people of color, Durkan’s office said.
Durkan, who is not running for reelection, has about nine months left in office. In a mayoral term that has at times been dominated by racial justice protests, a homelessness crisis and other issues, she is clear on her top priority in her time left.
“The No. 1 thing we have to do is vaccinations,” she said. “Being back together with family, going out to restaurants, having nightclubs, all the ways we gather, the hockey games, the Storm games, all of that requires vaccinations.”
She predicted that by “late spring, early summer” the vaccination supply would not be an issue, and the focus would switch to getting shots out as fast as possible.
She worries about new strains of the virus, some of which appear more transmissible. She worries that pandemic fatigue will lead people to let their guard down — to gather, to ditch masks — with mass vaccination on the doorstep.
“Everyone is so tired of this, everyone wants out,” Durkan said. “It’s how do you keep people in that marathon mentality, that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, there is hope, but people can’t let up, we are so close.”
Durkan has no power over Seattle Public Schools, as the district is overseen by an independently elected board. But still, the schools teach nearly 50,000 kids in the city she leads, almost none of whom has been in a school building in the last year. And it’s not easy to explain why restaurants are open and schools are closed.
“When history is written about this pandemic, both here and across this country, it will be written that we did not serve our children well,” Durkan said. “Kids have lost not just a year of school but everything that goes with that, and with it also is, I think, an increased amount of depression among kids and, for our students of color, where there was an opportunity gap already, this will set them back so much.”
As for her own future —she’ll be unemployed come 2022 — Durkan, who has a Sonics sign on the door to her office and was a regular at Storm games before the pandemic, is jokingly optimistic.
“I am going to be the new CEO for the Seattle Sonics and the travel is going to be great because COVID is going to be gone.”