When state and county officials announced last weekend they were taking extraordinary measures to contain the new coronavirus, Kathy Jackson figured she had news they’d be interested in.
She’s a vendor for a company that services nursing homes. Last Friday, she was doing her rounds on the Eastside and visited five of the facilities — including Life Care Center of Kirkland, which the next day was revealed to be the epicenter of the disease’s outbreak in America.
Two days later, on Sunday, Jackson also got sick. Fever, cough, some shortness of breath — the symptoms for COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus.
“My first thought was, ‘Oh no, I have it,’” Jackson said Thursday from her home in Kirkland. “My second thought was worse — ‘Oh no, I was going around visiting nursing homes and assisted care facilities. What if I spread it to them?’”
Jackson, 71, also had gone, on Saturday, to a crowded gymnastics meet in Woodinville for her grandson.
But what happened next floored her more than the illness has. She hasn’t been able to get tested — at least until the press called — to get anyone to listen to her story.
On Monday, she called the state’s coronavirus hotline. When she told them she had been at Life Care on Friday and had flu-like symptoms two days later, the person, according to Jackson, dismissed her concerns.
“They told me, ‘We already contacted everybody at that facility,’” Jackson says. “I said: ‘No you didn’t. I was there and now I’m sick.’ They said, ‘Well if you weren’t within six feet of someone who coughed or sneezed, then don’t worry about it.’”
But that day, officials announced that four people at Life Care had died. So she was worrying about it, to put it mildly. On her own, Jackson and her husband, who isn’t sick, decided to self-quarantine. Her respiratory symptoms worsened a bit on Monday but never got that severe, and her fever topped out at a relatively mild 100.1 degrees.
She kept calling the public health hotlines, though, on the theory that information is key in an outbreak.
“I thought for certain they would want to know if I had coronavirus,” Jackson says, “so they could tell the other places I went” — especially the one other assisted living facility she remembers visiting after Life Care. “But I can’t get a test. I can’t get anybody’s attention. It’s been one of the most frustrating experiences.”
Someone at the state hotline finally referred her to King County’s communicable disease hotline. She called that number repeatedly on Tuesday — and got hung up on eight times.
“It would go on hold and after a few minutes, the line goes dead,” she said.
By Wednesday, the county’s hotline worked better, saying “if you have questions about coronavirus, press 3.” The county has also now set up a dedicated coronavirus call center (206-477-3977 — this number worked when I called it Thursday.) Eventually, Jackson reached a human. The person listened to her case and said it had been “red-flagged” for attention, and that somebody would be calling her back.
But they didn’t.
“I don’t think I’m ever going to know if I have coronavirus or not,” Jackson said around midday Thursday.
Jackson had also called her family doctor, who said at the time she might not meet the strict threshold for testing in place, regardless of her story. The CDC initially set narrow criteria on who could be tested, but has since widened them to anyone who has symptoms. But that still doesn’t mean the tests are readily available.
After I called the state Department of Health on Thursday, Jackson’s case got “escalated,” as they say. The state agreed she needs to be tested immediately, due to her visit to Life Care. A spokesperson said the “temporary bottleneck in testing” ought to be relieved soon, because several commercial labs were gearing up Thursday night to open for testing. I also advised the state about where Jackson had visited after going to Life Care, so public health officials could notify the other assisted living facility if they decide they need to.
Jackson’s not as worried about her own health anymore. Whatever she’s got came with a ragged cough, but is otherwise not that bad, she reports. But the public health system? Here’s a woman who is 71 and was at ground zero of the outbreak before getting sick. She then visited one other assisted living facility as well as a youth sporting event. Shouldn’t the system have at least wanted to know if she has the virus?
Health experts say that one of the keys to stopping a virus’s spread is “contact tracing.” That’s the aggressive tracking of anyone who comes into contact with the disease, and then following up to make sure they either don’t have it or don’t spread it to others. Jackson’s story would suggest we’ve probably given this virus a hell of a head start.