How Seattle is grappling with America’s largest coronavirus outbreak


  • Amazon
  • Tuesday, 03 Mar 2020

Amazon has said it will limit nonessential travel within the United States and cancel warehouse tours. — Amazon/TNS

Remain calm, but we’re buying a motel.

As officials in the Seattle area try to manage the first and largest outbreak of coronavirus in the United States, they’re simultaneously reassuring the public and planning dramatic steps to isolate people if hospitals become overburdened.

All six deaths reported in the United States so far have been in the Seattle area and fear of wider contagion prompted some schools in the region to close, raising the potential of widespread disruption among workers in the home of giant companies including Amazon.com Inc, Microsoft Corp and Starbucks Corp. Government resources are already stretched: Firefighters and police officers who transported infected patients are in quarantine.

Health officials said there may be hundreds of infections that haven’t been reported yet in Washington state and potentially more nationwide. With more cases looming, King County Executive Dow Constantine opened a news conference on March 2 with the jarring disclosure that the county will use emergency authority to buy a motel to isolate what could be scores of patients.

In a place known for pragmatic politics and Scandinavian reserve, the defensive move was presented as commonsense good governance. It also could be taken as an ominous harbinger of an escalating public-health crisis, evoking images of quarantine centres during the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 and 1919.

”We’re going to see a lot of sick people,” producing "a tremendous challenge on our health care system,” said Jeff Duchin, the area’s top health officer.

Politely freaking

So far, residents appear to be responding by politely freaking out. More than 250 people lined up outside a Costco on the morning of March 1 to stockpile food and other necessities. While Seattle’s downtown was still full of office workers on March 2, pharmacy shelves had dwindling stocks of cold and flu medicines. In Kirkland, the lakeside suburb where a long-term care facility is the centre of the outbreak, some people said officials should be moving even more quickly to cancel public events and close schools.

"Everyone goes to the same coffee shops and the same yoga places,” said Seth Cysewski, a Kirkland resident who helps run a business that sells branded corporate products to technology companies including Microsoft, which is based in nearby Redmond. He attended a yoga class last week near the nursing home, Life Care Center, and while he has no symptoms, worries he might be spreading the virus to others. He planned to keep his eight-year-old daughter home from school.

"I’m surprised the school district is like, ‘Well, let’s just send kids to school until we know more',” he said.

Worldwide there have been 89,000 illnesses and 3,000 deaths attributed to the virus, and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development warned that global economic growth will sink to levels not seen in more than a decade as it spreads. Officials say the virus causes mild or flu-like symptoms in the vast majority of people infected, but has proven dangerous for elderly people or those with underlying illnesses.

New stage

"We have moved to a new stage in the fight to contain, mitigate and manage this outbreak,” Constantine, the King County executive, said in the news conference as he outlined steps to purchase the motel. The county will also set up modular housing units like those used by oil workers in Texas, he said,"in which we can place patients who are in need of isolation and a place to recover.”

At least 18 cases have been reported in Washington state, 14 in King County surrounding Seattle, and the number is likely to rise, said Duchin, the health officer. Washington Governor Jay Inslee said he planned to ask the legislature to allocate US$100mil (RM420.8mil) to combat the virus.

Complicating efforts to understand the severity of the outbreak is that many of the cases were in the nursing home, where patients already had respiratory illnesses or other conditions that made them more susceptible to the virus, known as Covid-19. A shortage of test kits also led to delays in testing. It meant only patients with a connection to China or other places where the virus first started spreading were screened.

Disinfecting everything

The nursing home sits on a narrow two-way street amid several condominium complexes. Around the corner at Esplanade Condominiums, one resident said he’s a late-stage cancer survivor and is carefully disinfecting everything – his home, car and laundry. He even bought silicone booties for his goldendoodle and sprays them with Lysol after every walk.

At a barber shop less than a mile from Life Care, Dean Nguyen said he’s seeing fewer customers. "Everybody is worried about it,” he said. "It’s affecting business – we understand. People have to feel safe.”

A Kirkland technical school with 6,365 students will be closed until March 4 for disinfection after 16 of its nursing students visited Life Care Center late last week. The school has also canceled all large events, like a March 5 open house and a March 6 professional development event.

Amazon has said it will limit nonessential travel within the United States and cancel warehouse tours. It started conducting some job interviews virtually rather than face-to-face.

In Puyallup, south of Seattle, a junior high school and an elementary school canceled classes with some students already on buses after learning that a relative of someone at the school had been diagnosed with Covid-19. Parents were told to pick up their children at a museum. The district said the decision was made "out of an abundance of caution” and the schools would reopen the following day after thorough cleaning.

On Twitter and Facebook groups, some parents around the region suggested closing more schools or asked about the option of attending Internet classes instead.

Amy Stevenson, who teaches band and orchestra at Lynnwood High School north of Seattle, said she worries about shared instruments and music stands. The tuba, for instance, gets used by about four students a day.

"With a situation like this, it’s just so obvious how underfunded we are,” she said. "There’s no way the school has the capacity or manpower to do what needs to be done.” – Bloomberg

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