State health officials warned that COVID-19 likely is spreading in Western Washington after the nation’s first death from the new coronavirus occurred in King County and dozens of cases were suspected at a Kirkland nursing facility.
Gov. Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency in response to the escalating threat in the state from COVID-19 and the report of the first death due to the virus in the United States. State agencies will have access to additional state funds to respond to and prepare for the outbreak.
The state’s emergency response began in January when the first confirmed case of COVID-19 was reported in Everett. The Health Department’s response operation initially was based at the State Emergency Operations Center at Camp Murray but later moved to Shoreline.
The center continued to handle non-pharmaceutical intervention strategies or NPI, said Karina Shagren, of the Military Department. It has representatives of other state agencies, including the Department of Commerce monitoring how the disease might impact businesses, the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction for impacts on schools, and the Department of Corrections, which could be needed to convert a facility for quarantine.
“The urgency is definitely increasing” with the developments of Friday night and Saturday, Shagren said.
The emergency center at Camp Murray also will be the site of a joint information center where communications staff from state agencies working on the outbreak will operate, she said.
Officials confirmed the death and the additional cases of COVID-19 at a news conference Saturday.
In total, there have been six confirmed cases of COVID-19, a respiratory virus with no vaccine or approved therapeutic treatment to date, in Washington. The first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the United States was in a Snohomish County man in late January, and he has since fully recovered after treatment with an experimental drug.
One King County man, who was already hospitalized and chronically ill, tested positive for the virus and died, health officials announced Saturday morning. His case is not thought to be connected to other confirmed cases in the county.
Two confirmed cases in King County are connected to Life Care Center, a skilled nursing facility in Kirkland. One health care worker there, a woman in her 40s, is receiving treatment at Overlake Hospital and is in satisfactory condition. One Life Care resident in her 70s is listed in serious condition at EvergreenHealth Hospital.
County health officials are monitoring more than 50 individuals associated with Life Care Center who are reportedly ill or hospitalized with symptoms. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is sending a team to Kirkland to support King County and state health officials in investigating and surveilling the spread of COVID-19 at Life Care Center.
Health care providers are testing hospitalized patients with respiratory symptoms for the virus and sending those specimens to the public health lab in Shoreline, Washington. Health officials expect the number of confirmed cases to grow following these test results.
The other confirmed cases in Washington include a teenager in Snohomish County with no travel history and a woman in her 50s who had recently traveled in South Korea and who is currently isolated in home quarantine.
Everett Public Schools announced that Jackson High School, where this student attends classes, will be closed on Monday to allow for three days of deep cleaning. Additionally, any close contacts with the student have been notified. The number of people the student came into close contact with is small, Heather Thomas with the Snohomish County Health District confirmed Saturday, and they will be quarantined at home for two weeks to monitor their symptoms.
CDC guidelines for testing currently require a person to be displaying symptoms, like a fever, cough or difficulty breathing, in addition to having a travel history in a country with community spread of the virus, close contact with a person who has COVID-19 or a person who already is hospitalized for a severe respiratory illness with no obvious cause for that illness.
The most recent guideline change came earlier this week, when the CDC allowed providers to test people with severe respiratory illness who were hospitalized, despite not having travel history. Dr. Frank Riedo, medical director of infection control at EvergreenHealth Hospital, said this rule change led his team to test two patients Thursday night. Both patients tested positive: the man who died and the woman living at Life Care Center.
“Both of them tested positive, which initiated the cascade of events,” Riedo said.
The man who died was not a resident of the long-term care facility, however, and Riedo said currently there is no evidence of connection between the two cases.
The four new confirmed cases of COVID-19 announced late Friday and Saturday morning are considered “presumptively positive” until the CDC confirms them, Kathy Lofy, state health officer, said at a news conference Saturday.
“The COVID-19 situation is rapidly evolving on the global scale, and in Washington we are starting to see some spread of this virus. Therefore we do feel that the risks to the general public is increasing, but we do not feel that transmission is occurring on a widespread basis,” Lofy said. “Therefore it means it’s more important than ever for people to practice good health habits.”
How can people prepare then?
“Hand washing, more hand washing. Less face touching. Stay away from others who are ill. Stay away from work if you are ill,” said Dr. Jeff Duchin, King County health officer.
Duchin said he expects to see an increase of cases in King County in the coming days, noting that so far, elderly people and those with underlying health conditions, like heart or lung diseases or diabetes, are at higher risk.
“The people at greatest risk for novel coronavirus are elderly, over 60 or 65 (years old) and those who have underlying health conditions,” Duchin said at a news conference Saturday.
The majority of COVID-19 cases are mild, however, Duchin said, with little need for further health care.
“As we test more, we will likely find more cases of this disease because most of them are mild and not seeking health care and if they are, they have a severe illness,” Duchin said.
King County health officials are continuing their investigation into the outbreak of COVID-19 at Life Care Center, Duchin said, including defining the cases in meticulous detail, finding connections and looking at their contacts for possible transmission.
The Washington State Department of Health can test for COVID-19 at its public health lab in Shoreline as of Friday, and Lofy said she hopes to ramp up the amount of tests per day to 200, although the department might have to rely on private labs for expanded capacity should the need arise. Currently, there is no backlog for testing at the Shoreline lab.
Health officials did not go so far as to cancel large group events or gatherings on Saturday. However, going forward, they said this is a possibility depending on how the virus spreads, in addition to school closures in the future.
Health officials encouraged businesses, schools and individuals to work on their own pandemic preparedness plans, thinking about what they would do if they needed to stay home from work or their child needed to stay home from school.
Jim Camden contributed to this report.
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