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Shawn Vestal: Fred Hutchison analysis shows that, while we braced for a threat from without, the threat was already here

Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / DAN PELLE)
Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / DAN PELLE)

It’s an almost perfect metaphor for our times.

While we were looking to protect ourselves from the threat from without, the threat from within was already making people sick, moving well ahead of a lethargic response on the ground at home.

Now the CDC says it’s inevitable that we’ll have a coronavirus outbreak spread through person-to-person contact here – so-called community spread. The death toll and number of infected people in Western Washington has grown daily. Experts say that hundreds more are likely infected in King and Snohomish counties, and our ability to screen for the virus remains woefully behind the need.

We are, in the words of a computational biologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, at roughly the same point that Wuhan, China, was facing on Jan. 1, when it first identified that there was an outbreak of a new virus.

At the very beginning.

“January 1 in Wuhan was March 1 in Seattle,” Trevor Bedford told the science journalism web site STAT in a piece published this week. “Now would be the time to start these interventions rather than waiting three weeks.”

Bedford said the coronavirus was likely active in Western Washington far earlier than first believed. He said that between 500 and 600 people may already be infected on the West Side, many unaware.

To prevent a Wuhan-like outbreak, officials should already be implementing “social distancing” strategies to reduce community spread of the disease, Bedford and others argue. This means urging sick people to isolate themselves and shutting down large gatherings. Some of these steps have been taken, and more seem highly likely, as more cases pop up.

Even in Spokane, where there are not yet any confirmed cases, people have begun canceling events.

“Now would be the time to act,” Bedford told STAT.

If we don’t, he says, we’ll see a spread like they had in China. And who knows how that might affect us on the East Side. We shouldn’t jump ahead of the facts, but for a disease that’s made its way across the planet, it’s certainly possible that an outbreak in Seattle could hop a ride to Spokane – or already has.

It’s important that we keep this in perspective and recognize that most people who are infected with the coronavirus won’t get all that sick. And yet more people are dying of the disease every day on the West Side. And the initial response to the disease on the federal level, in the eyes of many public health experts and critics, helped the virus get a foothold here, particularly in terms of the failure to rapidly begin testing on a widespread basis.

The U.S. is testing far fewer patients than some countries, in part because of federal restrictions on who can be tested. On Wednesday, President Donald Trump made a point of blaming former President Barack Obama for that problem, while loosening some restrictions to address the backlog.

In a moment that calls for steady, factual, responsible leadership, Trump has been selfish, boastful, partisan, often incorrect and sometimes outrageously irresponsible in his public remarks – deploying the wildly inapt word “hoax” – and his team has often seemed more concerned about managing the stock market and whining about press coverage than responding to a public health crisis. The result has been, among some, a level of dismissiveness and failure to take the virus seriously.

Meanwhile, Bedford and his lab took the initiative and discovered the canary in the coronavirus coal mine. Because it was considered research and therefore allowable under CDC restrictions, Bedford performed a genetic analysis on a sick youth in King County who had flu-like symptoms but had tested negative for flu. The lab found he’d been infected with the coronavirus though he had not traveled outside the country, and was thus likely a case of someone being infected here, via community transmission.

That case was announced publicly last Friday (the same day that White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney said the press was only paying attention to coronavirus in order to hurt the president).

Bedford’s discovery signified it was likely that hundreds of others had already been infected. The virus had been spreading in Western Washington for around six weeks.

Like Jan. 1 in Wuhan.

Let’s hope that’s where the comparison ends.

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