The Puget Sound region is the epicenter of the novel coronavirus outbreak in the United States, and communities throughout Seattle and King County are hunkering down to wait out the disease as the full extent of the crisis continues to unfold.
As of March 10, King County had identified 190 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, resulting in 22 deaths, mostly connected to one long-term care center in Kirkland. However, it’s very likely that there are more in the community that will be discovered as more people get tested, said Patty Hayes, the director of Seattle & King County Public Health.
“That’s important for the council to understand, because I don’t want you to be shocked if these numbers double over time,” Hayes told members of the Seattle City Council over a teleconference line. Council offices have been advised to work from home to avoid contagion, turning the regular Monday afternoon meeting into a digital affair.
Public Health wasn’t requiring involuntary isolation or the cancellation of large events immediately, Hayes told councilmembers, but the option was open and that the decision could change.
Some groups proactively postponed indoor events, such as the Emerald City Comic Con, a large, festive gathering of comic book aficionados and cosplayers that takes over the downtown once a year. The event was a cause of “grave concern,” Hayes said, and that she appreciated the event organizers pushing the gathering. Public Health is also in conversation with sports teams and arts venues.
Organizers of the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) did not choose to take such advice, holding the event at the end of February as planned. An unidentified person later found to be infected came into contact with several lawmakers, causing politicians include representatives Matt Gaetz and Doug Collins to go into self-quarantine.
Sen. Ted Cruz also announced he would self-quarantine, prompting a cam-model company to offer him $100,000 worth of sessions to help him bide the time. The press release cited the 2017 incident when Cruz’s official Twitter account “liked” a tweet about porn.
None of those lawmakers announced at the time that they would be getting tested for coronavirus, something that President Donald Trump said during a visit to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) would be available to anyone who needed one.
That was not true, although local efforts are coming online to bolster the number of people who can be tested and remove restrictions that prevented even symptomatic people from accessing the tests.
While countries like South Korea have successfully tested hundreds of thousands for COVID-19, even setting up drive-thru testing sites where a test can be administered in minutes, the United States has been slower to react to the crisis.
Initially, only the CDC was processing coronavirus tests, depressing the number of confirmed cases. The University of Washington created its own coronavirus test and set up a drive-thru test site specifically for health care workers who are on the front lines of the fight against the illness.
Local testing efforts will expand in coming weeks. The Gates Foundation announced that it would be providing home-testing kits for the illness, which could later be processed without risking exposure to the disease.
The shifting response to the coronavirus has further revealed the holes in the U.S. social safety net and forced private groups as well as state and local governments to take steps to ameliorate the pain.
Amid fears over the potential cost of a
COVID-19 test, Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler issued an emergency order to Washington health insurers requiring them to waive copays and deductibles for the procedure and allow people who need to self-quarantine to get early refills of prescription drugs.
However, the announcement only applies to “state-regulated health insurance plans and short-term limited duration medical plans.” Questions remain for the 70 million Americans who are either uninsured or underinsured who could be impacted by other coronavirus care costs outside of just the testing.
Philanthropic agencies are stepping in to try to solve other problems associated with the virus. The Seattle Foundation launched a COVID-19 response fund to help organizations with “deep roots” in the community weather the harsh economic times, and local author Ijeoma Oluo started an online fundraiser to help struggling artists who have been financially hit by cancellations.
Recommendations that people try to self-quarantine and work from home are impossible for service workers and other vulnerable populations who can’t afford to miss shifts. Places like Seattle and Washington have paid leave laws, but many workers such as contractors are still vulnerable.
The federal government is discussing some kind of relief for low-income workers, but the rapidly spreading disease impacts those workers in other ways.
If schools close, for instance, it would be a double hit for many low-income families with school-age children, forcing them to find ways to provide child care. It also means children and families who rely on free-and-reduced price breakfasts and lunches provided at school sites may feel an extra burden, said Thomas Reynolds, chief executive officer of Northwest Harvest, a food distribution nonprofit.
Northwest Harvest is working to get food to other “access points” to help support those families, a critical move as more and more people are forgoing trips to the food bank. They don’t need to, Reynolds said.
“We want to tell people to go to your local food bank,” Reynolds said. “It’s safe.”
Other vulnerable populations lack places to go altogether.
Thousands of people experiencing homelessness survive on the streets or in congregate shelter every night in King County. While public health officials recommend frequent hand-washing, clean clothing and “social distancing” — keeping six feet between people is considered ideal — that’s not possible for many homeless people.
The city has responded by opening up an emergency shelter at the Seattle Center Exhibition Hall and adding units in tiny house villages where people have the ability to isolate themselves if they’re concerned about infection. They’ve also worked to get additional sanitation supplies into the hands of service providers to protect against disease transmission.
People stuck at home who have some extra computing power can help researchers find ways to treat the virus. Projects like Folding@Home and Rosetta@Home allow people to “donate” computer processing power in a distributed computing network that runs simulations to better understand how proteins work.
With its roughly 30,000 users, Folding@Home is on par with the world’s largest super computers and has had successes with previously “undruggable” diseases like Ebola, said Gregory Bowman, director of the Folding@Home project. Since previous outbreaks such as SARS and MERS were also triggered by coronaviruses, researchers have a general idea of what they’re looking for, smoothing the process.
COVID-19-specific “tasks” should be online by mid-March, Bowman said.
Experts indicate that a vaccine for the virus is months if not more than a year in the future, despite Trump’s claims that it would be coming online quickly.
In the meantime, Seattleites are best served by doing what comes naturally to the city that invented the Freeze — cancel plans and stay at home.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC.
Read more in the Mar. 11-17, 2020 issue.