As news emerged Saturday that the novel coronavirus had claimed its first U.S. victim — a King County man in his 50s with no known travel contacts — government and health care officials prepared for the rapidly expanding outbreak while trying to tamp down fears that the health care system could be pushed to its limits.
Schools, airports, and transit agencies were rolling out measures to slow the spread of the highly infectious respiratory disease, and on Monday the Seattle Fire Department plans on launching “tabletop exercises” to model different coronavirus transmission scenarios.
“We do feel that the risk to the general public is increasing, but … we do not feel that transmission is occurring on a widespread basis by any means,” said Dr. Kathy Lofy, the Washington state health officer, during a Saturday press conference in downtown Seattle.
On Saturday, several local hospitals said they were shifting their strategy for diagnosing and treating the new coronavirus. Until now, hospitals screened patients based on where they had recently traveled, and whether they had contact with a person who tested positive.
But with the recent emergence of new cases, hospitals are broadening their focus to people who have both a fever and pneumonialike symptoms but have not traveled, said Dr. Chris Dale, chief quality officer at Swedish Health Services. “Our screening has followed the evolution,” he said.
Hospitals also said they were trying to divert patients with mild symptoms, encouraging them to stay home and call a health care provider instead of going to an emergency room. That allows hospitals to focus on the most serious cases.
One focus of concern was at the long-term care facility Life Care Center in Kirkland, where two patients tested positive. Life Care Center is monitoring residents and employees for specific symptoms — fever, cough and shortness of breath — to distinguish possible cases of the coronavirus from the various cold and flulike symptoms “normal this time of year,” according to a statement released by the facility.
It may send more patients to the hospital for formal testing, which is not being performed at the facility.
Nancy Butner, northwest divisional vice president of Life Care Centers of America, told The Seattle Times, “I wouldn’t say it’s relaxed, but it’s controlled” at the facility.
One employee at the facility, who has been out sick and plans to get tested soon himself, said he imagines his co-workers are concerned.
“They’re probably all freaking out,” he said. “Especially the ones who have young children at home.”
Local and regional governments have also swung into action. Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan has been meeting with city leaders to discuss emergency planning related to the coronavirus outbreak since January. The Seattle Office of Emergency Management began convening twice weekly sessions with local partners to plan the response to the novel coronavirus earlier this month.
“Individuals, families and businesses should make plans and prepare,” Durkan wrote in a statement. “The number one thing people can do now is to heed the public health advice to keep from getting sick, and stay home if you do get sick.”
In Olympia, Washington lawmakers want to allocate $10 million to respond to the virus, with much of it going to local health districts, a dedicated call center and additional monitoring of known cases inside the state.
Senate lawmakers also budgeted $1 million to an economic development fund to help businesses whose trade is impacted. “The shipment of crab to China has dropped to practically nothing, we can’t get oysters from my district there,” said Sen. Dean Takko, D-Longview, who sponsored the amendment. “And it’s not just my district.”
School districts in the area also have plans in place for protecting against the virus. Seattle, Bellevue and Snohomish schools are encouraging students to wash their hands, but aren’t discussing school closures at this time. Bothell High School recently canceled two days of class. In Everett, crews were sanitizing “every touchable surface,” including the gym, locker rooms, classrooms and the cafeteria.
At Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, “most travelers won’t see much of a difference, said spokesman Perry Cooper. “They might see some more disinfection and more janitorial crews doing their jobs, and more hand-sanitizer stations, but we haven’t been directed [by the CDC] to do anything other than that at this point.”
The extraordinary measures come amid national concerns that the U.S. health care system is ill-prepared for a pandemic of respiratory illness. A 2005 study concluded that 740,000 mechanical ventilators would be required for patients during a severe influenza outbreak, according to a story in The New York Times. But only around 72,000 ventilators were either available at hospitals or in federal stockpiles, The Times reported.
Local health officials said they were prepared. In recent weeks, hospitals have stocked up on personal protective equipment for caregivers. One of the most important pieces are N95 respirator masks, which filter 95% of airborne particles. Supplies are tight, but administrators said they had enough for now.
“We have an appropriate level of supplies on hand, but we’re being very judicious of how we’re using them,” said Susan Gregg, spokeswoman for UW Medicine.
Health care professionals, meanwhile, were preparing themselves to deal with an onslaught of new patients — and for the possibility that they themselves will become infected.
Anne Powers, a nurse at Swedish First Hill, said she was preparing for potential exposure to the virus.
“Everybody is apprehensive. We’re preparing for the worst, both mentally and at home,” she said.
Staff reporters Asia Fields, Mary Hudetz, Elise Takahama and Mike Lindblom contributed to this report.