A Week at the Epicenter of America’s Coronavirus Crisis
March 13, 2020
We stopped touching each other on a Wednesday. Or was it Tuesday? Information came at us so fast—confirmed cases, public-health warnings, deaths—you could swear the days of the week had transposed, their order jumbled like everything else. Certainly by Wednesday the handshakes stopped. Hugs weren’t far behind. Even among longtime friends and family. This would soon happen elsewhere in the country, to a degree, but here in the Seattle area, where by week’s end covid-19 would kill nearly twenty of us, evading physical contact carried extra urgency. Every avoidance felt like an act of heroism. You told yourself you were saving lives, and you were probably right.
Days earlier, on Saturday, February 29th, we woke to news of the first U.S. death from the virus, a man in his fifties, at a hospital in Kirkland, eight miles northeast of Seattle. At nearby Life Care Center of Kirkland, two patients tested positive. The number of confirmed cases tripled within twenty-four hours. By Monday, five were dead, four of them patients at Life Care in their seventies and eighties. Out came declarations of emergency, from the Seattle mayor, Jenny Durkan, the King County executive Dow Constantine, and Governor Jay Inslee.Read more of The New Yorker’s coverage of the coronavirus crisis.
We didn’t know it yet, but we were living in a kind of laboratory of the country’s future. We were the first. The first to see bus drivers don face masks; the first to take seriously, citywide, singing “Happy Birthday” twice in a row as we washed our hands. The first to experience a unique kind of isolation. Circumventing handshakes helped avoid spreading disease—the elbow bump won out as the preferred alternative—but it also fostered a sense that none of us should be anywhere near one another. On the bus you chose to stand rather than share a seat with a stranger. You thought about crossing the street when approaching too many other pedestrians on a sidewalk. Officials would eventually advise—then demand—that we avoid large public gatherings. We were still out in the world, but barely of it. Alone together.
In that isolation, you had time to notice just how many objects your fingers touch throughout the day. Door handles, crosswalk-signal switches, elevator buttons. Every surface was suspect. The elbow bump diversified, became an all-purpose tool. You elbow-tapped to select your floor, and used the same elbow to hold the sliding doors for someone rushing to get to work on time. (Then stood as far away from her as possible on the ride up.)
We also contended with Seattle’s new role on the world stage. We’re used to being in the news for our innovations, here in the home of Amazon, Microsoft, Starbucks, and the original Boeing. If we’re lucky, the Seahawks play a decent enough season for everyone else to hear about it. Now we were known as ground zero of a deadly epidemic poised to sweep the continent.
On Tuesday night, NBC News, sharing its story on the crisis, tweeted, “Seattle a ‘ghost town’ as residents face uncertainty of growing coronavirus outbreak.” We laughed it off and clapped back. It was a gross exaggeration. Those of us downtown could see the city wasn’t empty. But we recognized some truth in it, too. The weekday bustle was there, but anesthetized.
All the while more news issued out of Kirkland. In daily briefings, officials from Public Health—Seattle & King County shared the vaguest of details. “A female in her 80s, a resident of LifeCare, was hospitalized at EvergreenHealth. She is in critical condition.” “A male in his 70s, a resident of LifeCare, hospitalized at EvergreenHealth. . . . The man had underlying health conditions, and died 3/1/20.” The death toll kept rising, but without names and specifics the epidemic could feel unrelated to any real danger, as if it only consisted of inconvenient rules, an invisible event that merely compelled people to bruise elbows and horde toilet paper and Purell. Then the families started talking.
Carmen Gray sat behind the wheel of her Buick in the Life Care parking lot, just before noon, on Tuesday, March 3rd. A line of Douglas firs towered over the sidewalk between the nursing home and the residential street that flanks it. Among the trees, Gray could see silver-bearded men toting TV cameras. Nearby, on-air talent paced in hats, gloves, and coats buttoned tight against the winter breeze. Photographers behaved like motion detectors, lifting their lenses at the slightest hint of movement near the nursing-home entrance. Earlier in the morning, ambulances had transported three patients to nearby Evergreen hospital, but there was no action now.
Next to Gray, in the passenger seat, sat her younger sister Bridget Parkhill. They had a decision to make. Their mother, the seventy-six-year-old Susan Hailey, had lived at the home since November, convalescing from knee surgery. An ankle fracture from a fall prolonged her stay. For the past four days, Hailey, like her fellow-residents, had been in quarantine. Or as close to quarantine as the staff, without expertise in containing an epidemic, could muster; patients were supposed to be confined to their rooms, but, Gray noticed, several were in the hallways.
Because none of the residents could leave, unless via ambulance to the hospital, the sisters had only been able to interact with their mother in one way: stand on the sidewalk outside Hailey’s room, wave at her through the window, point at their cell phones, and motion for her to pick up the phone when it rang. In this way they soothed their mother, who felt isolated, scared. To pass the time, Hailey watched “The Price Is Right” in the morning, “Jeopardy!” at night, old movies in between. In a photo Parkhill took with her phone, Hailey appears on the other side of the glass in a wheelchair, an oversized gray hoodie sweatshirt draped over her shoulders. Behind her, holding the handles of the chair, stands a woman, presumably a caretaker, in floral-patterned scrubs, with a white mask covering her mouth.
Their mother didn’t exhibit all the symptoms of covid-19—she had a cough and shortness of breath, among other signs, but no fever. That didn’t mean she hadn’t contracted the virus, or that she wouldn’t. The lack of answers from both the nursing home and Public Health was frustrating. No one seemed to know what the next steps were. The sisters feared for their mother’s life.
Gray, a wine-shop clerk who lives in nearby Bothell, had never in her fifty-seven years spoken on record to a member of the media. She wasn’t sure she was prepared for the attention. “I don’t think I’ve ever been on camera before,” she later told me by phone, “let alone half a dozen of them all at one time.” But there she sat in the car, watching the scrum of cameramen and reporters among the tree trunks, just waiting for something to happen. And she knew she had a story to tell. As her sister dialled the number of a local TV studio to gain traction that way, Gray opened the driver’s-side door, walked across the parking lot toward those firs swaying in the wind, and stepped into the coronavirus spotlight.
Two days later, on Thursday, around 2 p.m., family members of a handful of other patients held a joint press conference in the same spot. Kevin Connolly, whose eighty-one-year-old father-in-law, Jerry, was inside, complained that many of them had learned about the outbreak on the news, not from Life Care staff. “At the rate that this disease is killing people in this establishment,” Connelly said. “My father-in-law will be dead by the end of the week.”ADVERTISEMENT
Pat Herrick’s eighty-nine-year-old mother, Elaine, was already gone, a nursing-home representative had informed Herrick by phone early that morning. Hours later, a Life Care Center of Kirkland employee inside the building called to say, inaccurately, that Elaine was just fine. Herrick said she didn’t blame the Kirkland employee for the emotional roller coaster, but she was visibly agitated.
So was Curtis Luterman. The day before, he called the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s covid-19 hotline and said his eighty-nine-year-old mother, Mary, was at Life Care Center of Kirkland. The representative who answered the phone asked perplexing questions: In what state was the nursing home? Had any coronavirus cases been detected there? At the time, Life Care and its outbreak was the biggest, most ubiquitous news story in America. “Miss,” Luterman rhetorically asked the cameras pointed at him, “are you living under a rock?”
Aweek earlier, on Friday, February 28th, Constantine had landed in Washington, D.C., for the National Association of Counties conference, where on Sunday he was scheduled to join counterparts from Texas, Michigan, and New York for a panel on early-childhood development. That night, as he walked back to his hotel after dinner with a colleague, his cell phone lit up. A call from a staff member. There was trouble back home. The first cluster of covid-19 cases had surfaced in Kirkland.
A native Seattleite and fourth-generation Washingtonian, former college-radio d.j., and personal friend to many of the region’s grunge-era icons, Constantine—or “Dow,” as he’s almost universally referred to around town—has been the county’s executive since 2009, responsible for the physical and economic well-being of 2.2 million people spread out over 2,130 square miles.
After the call in D.C., Constantine rushed to his hotel room and booked the next available flight home. From the air he monitored the situation, and soon after landing learned of the first mortality. From Sea-Tac airport he went straight to the Chinook Building, the county’s headquarters, in downtown Seattle, where his office would soon host C.D.C. and state health officials, now working closely with his own public-health department. “We’ve been at a dead sprint ever since,” Constantine told me. “One of the things we needed to do immediately was provide space for isolation of confirmed cases and for recovery.”
This was especially important for the region’s sizable population of people living with homelessness. (The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development recently ranked Seattle/King County’s housing crisis the third worst in the nation.) “Every infection we’re able to prevent, every day that we can forestall the rapid escalation of this is a day closer to saving lives,” Constantine told me. He authorized the purchase of a motel, an eighty-five-bed Econo Lodge in the suburb of Kent. He ordered that modular units previously acquired for such an emergency—mobile-home-like structures often employed as offices at construction sites—be placed around the county for potential housing. Along the way, Constantine became the face of the containment effort—the calming, almost monotone voice when it was time to place our panic in check, or the throaty indignation when the situation deserved criticism.
How did things get so deadly so quickly? (As of this writing, Public Health—Seattle & King County has confirmed two hundred and seventy cases of the virus. Twenty-seven people have died, twenty-two of them associated with the nursing home.) Constantine says an extensive investigation of Life Care is likely coming. For now, public-health staff have explained it to him this way: covid-19 had finally reached its most vulnerable target. The virus, he told me, “was lurking around, and then it suddenly expressed itself in this one place where there were a lot of people who were susceptible to becoming very ill or dying, and if it had not reached there it might still be circulating largely undetected in the community.”
When Constantine announced that all county employees—with the exception of those in essential services, such as trash pickup—would not be coming in to work, the statement sent ripples through the region, as did the recommendation that businesses make it possible for their employees to telecommute. By Wednesday night, March 4th, both Amazon and Microsoft, which have a combined workforce of more than a hundred thousand in the region, had e-mailed employees to say that they should not come in to the office and, instead, should work from home. Smaller companies all over soon followed. We were about to be first at something else. The first work-from-home city.
That’s how it’s been ever since. A whole region of office dwellers—not in the office. Our status is W.F.H. Who knows for how long. Meetings are held via Slack or, if you’re feeling a particular amount of local pride, Microsoft Teams. Not everyone can do this. Service and hourly-wage jobs don’t enjoy telecommute options. And we’re only beginning to fathom the impact on those workers and the businesses that employ them. The impact of the outbreak is unequal, like so much else in Seattle and the country.
That first week we were living in the rest of the nation’s future, avoiding physical contact. This week, we’re experiencing what I presume will happen to everyone else next. Occupational isolation. Workdays conducted entirely in sweatpants. It occurs to me now that the people at Life Care were living this even before us. After all, Carmen Gray’s mother, Susan Hailey, was confined to her room a week before the rest of most Seattleites, with only television to keep her company.
After Gray’s appearance on local news—“My sister and I are as anxious as can be,” she had told the cameras under the evergreens, “they’re waiting for people to get gravely ill before they transfer them out”—her message went national. Later in the week she and her mother appeared on ABC’s “World News Tonight with David Muir.” This time, it was Hailey’s turn to talk. “I don’t like being trapped,” she said, by phone from her bed, “and I am.”
She sounded frail. The day after Gray first approached the press, Hailey’s symptoms became more pronounced, and an ambulance rushed her to the hospital. She was finally tested for covid-19, but the results hadn’t come back yet the last time I spoke to her daughter, last Friday. (Gray later texted that Hailey had tested positive for the virus.) There at the hospital, at least, Gray could finally touch her mother. “I was able to gown up, and mask up, and go in and talk with her.” It was the happiest I’d ever heard Gray. The physical interaction, the ability to touch, transformed her, if only for a few seconds. But our conversation was short. Gray was tired. We all were. “I have not taken care of myself the way I’m supposed to. And so now I’m trying.”
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