By the time President Donald Trump stood on a South Carolina stage and declared to a roaring crowd that concerns over coronavirus were "a hoax," the virus had already killed two people in King County. We just didn't know it yet.
Trump's rally was on Friday, February 28. A day later, Seattle learned about the first fatality from COVID-19, the deadly flu-like disease. By Sunday, the death toll had risen to two, and a doctor from the Kirkland hospital where the first patient died told reporters, "What we're seeing is the tip of the iceberg."
He was right.
Over the next week, the number of deaths climbed, confirmed coronavirus cases skyrocketed, and Seattle became enveloped in a slow-motion crisis where the killer wasn't hurricane winds or asphyxiating wildfire smoke but instead a silent and invisible virus.
Not long ago, COVID-19 was a foreign concern, something China and Iran and Italy were dealing with. Now it was suddenly a direct threat to our schools, hospitals, and retirement homes. Seattleites learned the phrase "community spread," a benign- sounding term that means something far more sinister: The virus was here and we were giving it to each other.
All over the metro area, reports of confirmed cases started trickling out: a concessions worker at a football game had it, a University of Washington employee had it, a Facebook worker had it, as did a high schooler in Snohomish County. Seattle was facing the specter of a virus that could be 30 times deadlier than the common flu spreading on bus railings and offices desks and hospital waiting rooms.
By the end of the week, officials would be encouraging companies to let employees telecommute, and offices in the city's economic engine of South Lake Union would empty out as the city faced its new reality.
Trump's "hoax" was already here. It had been spreading for weeks.
6 Dead, 14 Infected
By the morning of Monday, March 2, Seattle's fifth-tallest skyscraper was shut down for coronavirus cleaning and the death toll was climbing so fast that even public-health leaders couldn't keep track.
During a morning press conference, Jeffrey Duchin, health officer for Public Health—Seattle & King County, told a room full of reporters and camera crews that new cases had brought "the total number of cases to 14 including five deaths." But then 15 minutes later at the same press conference, Dr. Ettore Palazzo, a doctor at EvergreenHealth hospital in Kirkland, told the same reporters, "We now at this time have 10 confirmed cases of COVID-19 at Evergreen. Six of those cases have died."
The room started buzzing: Was it five deaths or six? Who was right? A reporter yelled out, "Did you just say six?" and Palazzo turned and quickly said, in a tone that conveyed that he sadly knew he was right, "I did." Washington State was suddenly at the center of a global epidemic, with 14 confirmed cases and the only known death from COVID-19 in the country.
This outbreak shouldn't have been a surprise. On January 20, a Snohomish County man became the first confirmed case in the United States. He had visited Wuhan, China, where the outbreak began, and then flew back through the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. The case made headlines but quickly fell into the back of the public consciousness. Public-health officials said it was still possible to contain the virus from spreading further, and more than five weeks passed with no new COVID-19 cases reported.
By Monday, it was abundantly clear that the virus had not been contained. Not only were new cases being reported and new deaths occurring, genetic testing by the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center showed that these new cases were direct descendants of the virus the first man contracted. The federal government had so far barred testing for the virus unless the person had recently traveled to China or had known contact with an infected individual. This restrictive testing criteria, combined with a shortage of COVID-19 diagnostic tests, meant the virus was allowed to spread without new cases being detected, according to Dr. Trevor Bedford, a researcher with the Seattle cancer institute.
"This lack of testing was a critical error and allowed an outbreak in Snohomish County and surrounding areas to grow to a sizable problem before it was even detected," Bedford said.
The only reason we didn't have new cases was because our government wasn't looking for them.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the federal agency that manages COVID-19 testing, responded to the criticism by promptly removing data from its website—data that had showed how many tests had been completed nationwide (they were reporting 459 completed tests with only three confirmed community transmissions). Then the CDC abruptly canceled a planned press conference.
Trump finished this Monday by speaking to a crowd full of screaming supporters in North Carolina. It was the eve of Super Tuesday, and Trump said that "Sleepy Joe" Biden will be "put in a home." And then, lying through his teeth and clearly worried about the stock market, Trump added that his "administration had taken the most aggressive action in modern history to protect Americans from the coronavirus... Our tough and early actions have really been proven to be 100 percent right."
9 Dead, 27 Infected
At 7 a.m. on Tuesday, March 3, one of Washington State's US senators sent a message to the Trump administration.
"If someone in the White House is actually in charge of responding to this crisis, it would be news to anyone in my state," Senator Patty Murray said during a Senate hearing in Washington, DC, with the directors of the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). "This is really a frightening time. At least six people in my home state have already died from the virus, and I'm told we should expect more."
The criticism was bipartisan. Republican senators questioned how the CDC had failed to expand testing for the virus after the initial confirmed case. Dr. Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the CDC, said the agency had sent out test kits in January but the diagnostic tests in those kits ended up being defective. Dr. Stephen Hahn, commissioner of the FDA, said the agency would ship more than one million tests by the end of the week. Within minutes, a New York Times report found that Hahn's claim was almost entirely unbelievable.
Governor Jay Inslee had better news a few hours later, when he toured a health clinic in Seattle's Chinatown-International District. Inslee said that the state's lab was now able to perform 200 COVID-19 tests a day and that the University of Washington would soon begin testing a thousand a day. Dr. Kathy Lofy, a health officer for the Washington State Department of Health, had more dire news during the same press conference.
"We know that [COVID-19] is spreading in King County. We know it is spreading in Snohomish County," Lofy said. "It's very possible that it's spreading in other counties as well."
An hour later, a new batch of test results confirmed Lofy's statement: COVID-19 had now killed nine people in the state, including the first death in Snohomish County. Seven of the deaths were linked to one nursing home in Kirkland. There were now 27 confirmed cases in the state.
"January 1 in Wuhan was March 1 in Seattle," Bedford, the Fred Hutchinson researcher, told the health news website STAT on March 3, referencing the Chinese city at the center of the original COVID-19 outbreak. Bedford pleaded for Seattle to take decisive action by increasing testing, expanding social distancing, and placing infected people under quarantine.
By Tuesday afternoon, King County's first quarantine site was being assembled out of modular housing units on a muddy piece of property in White Center, an unincorporated working-class area south of Seattle. The county bought 14 dour-looking modular housing units from migrant worker camps in Midwestern oil fields. Each unit had four separate rooms with two twin-size beds and a bathroom, although the county didn't think the utilities would be hooked up before quarantined individuals would start moving in at the end of the week. They would have to use portable toilets.
In the apartment buildings surrounding the White Center COVID-19 camp, neighbors appeared to be surprised by the appearance of the quarantine units. Jeffrey Stotts, 60, who recently moved into a new apartment building across the street, told me: "I don't like it coming here. The people who are going to go in and out of there are going to have [the virus] on their clothing and it'll go airborne." Stotts said his wife is 73 and has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which makes her prone to pneumonia.
Joe Nguyen, the state senator representing the area, put out a statement a short time later questioning the placement of the camp. "I understand why this facility is needed," Nguyen said. "But the appearance of placing it in a neighborhood that has already been historically marginalized conveys a message about whose safety we most value in our society that is not lost on me."
Officials in Kent, a city further south, protested even more a day later when it leaked out that the county spent $4.2 million to buy the city's Econo Lodge, an 85-room motel that would be used to further expand quarantine sites. Kent mayor Dana Ralph told the Seattle Times she was concerned that "the coronavirus is a pretext for the siting of a longer term homelessness or quarantine facility in Kent."
By Tuesday night, concerning reports from Seattle's hospitals started leaking out onto Reddit and Twitter. Local radio station KUOW spoke with one nurse at EvergreenHealth who said she was "100 percent certain" she was in close contact with a COVID-19 patient but that management at the hospital was forcing her and her coworkers to continue working with other patients as long as they weren't actively showing symptoms.
10 dead, 39 infected
On the morning of Wednesday, March 4, Seattle's congressional delegation continued their criticisms of the Trump administration. This time, Representative Pramila Jayapal took the microphone, telling a US House of Representatives hearing that Trump's description of the deadly virus as "a hoax" was "extremely damaging."
"It is time to stop playing politics with this," Jayapal said. "We are losing people's lives as a result."
Two hours later, public-health officials in Seattle delivered another round of bad news: The death toll had now increased to 10, and 39 people in the state had confirmed infections.
A week earlier, there was only one known case in the state. The outbreak had suddenly forced Seattle to question the gravitational pull of our city, the fabric of urban life, people mingling and mixing and creating new art and billion-dollar companies—all of that suddenly seemed associated with the threat of further transmission. The county government suggested that companies send their employees home to work remotely, that anyone sick or older than 60 should stay home entirely, and that all gatherings with more than 10 people be canceled.
King County Metro started aggressively cleaning its fleet of 1,600 buses, spraying every surface on each bus with disinfectant nightly. They also began preparing for possible reduced bus service if too many drivers got sick.
In South Lake Union, where the tech industry pays more than a billion dollars annually in wages in this neighborhood alone, things were starting to slow down by Wednesday's evening commute. Analisa Price, a 29-year-old Amazon employee, said she had noticed more people working from home. She said people were concerned there wasn't enough action being taken.
"The thing that stresses me out is that the CDC doesn't seem to be very open and the testing isn't very robust, so it seems like right now people are most nervous that they don't know how broad the issue is," Price said. "I feel like a lot of other countries were a lot more quick to take on containment measures, whereas here some companies are saying work from home through the end of March, but others are like, we need you here."
A few hours after my conversation with Price, Amazon followed Google and Microsoft's lead and told their employees to work from home.
Wednesday came to a close with Trump claiming on Fox News' Hannity, the number one rated cable news show in the country, that it was fine for sick employees to go to work.
"So if, you know, we have thousands or hundreds of thousands of people that get better, just by, you know, sitting around and even going to work—some of them go to work but they get better," Trump actually said.
11 Dead, 70 infected
By Thursday, March 5, there was firm data to support the theory that our government had failed to test enough people. Just as testing was expanded, the number of confirmed cases mushroomed from 14 to 70, and yet another person was confirmed dead.
The 11th death was a 90-year-old woman residing at Life Care Center of Kirkland, the nursing home at the center of the crisis. Life Care had become a dystopian scene of octogenarians exposed to a deadly virus and locked inside while their family members were stuck outside. A spokesperson for Life Care told the New York Times that patients had gone from first symptoms to death in just a matter of a few hours: "It was surprising and shocking to us that we have seen that kind of escalation from symptoms to death."
Schools around the region were also taking action, closing campuses and turning to digital classes. The University of Washington was continuing with business as usual, but its 50,000 students were increasingly questioning the administration's rationale for staying open. More than 20,000 people had signed an online petition calling on the university to close.
Magdalene, a 19-year-old sophomore studying public health at UW, said when I interviewed her on campus, "In school we learn about diseases that have wiped out populations, but I've never really thought about it happening while we are present."
By Thursday afternoon, the City of Seattle had declared a state of emergency. Vice President Mike Pence landed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord south of Tacoma, where he tapped elbows with the governor in lieu of shaking hands, and then assured the state that everything was going to be okay. Two hours later, the New York Times reported that two more people in King County had died from the virus.
15 dead, 79 infected
By the morning of Friday, March 6, the University of Washington announced that one of its employees had contracted the virus, and that it would end in-person classes for its students for the rest of the quarter. The number of global coronavirus cases passed 100,000 and 49 people died in Italy in just the last 24 hours.
Meanwhile, Larry Kudlow, Trump's senior economic adviser, recommended Americans keep working but avoid Seattle: "That would be a place you would avoid for now," Kudlow said in a televised interview.
In Trumpland, the virus was still a hoax. And according to the president, it had been contained. "We closed it down, we stopped it, it was a very early shutdown," Trump told reporters the same day. And Kellyanne Conway, a close counselor to the president, told reporters that there were plenty of COVID-19 test kits available in the country and that "it is being contained."
"We are past the point of containment," Dr. Helen Chu, an infectious-disease specialist at University of Washington, said to the journal Nature on Friday morning. "So now we need to keep the people who are vulnerable from getting sick."
Just before noon, the Seattle Times reported that the 12th person had died at EvergreenHealth, raising the statewide toll to 15 deaths and 79 confirmed cases. There were now more confirmed deaths in King County, population 2.1 million, than in Beijing, population 21.5 million.