KIRKLAND, Washington—Last Thursday, before the 2019 novel coronavirus had taken hold in the U.S., Colleen Mallory visited her mother at the Life Care Center here. She noticed her mom’s roommate appeared to be very sick with a respiratory infection.
“I didn’t think anything of it,” Mallory told The Daily Beast this week. “I sat in the room with my mom.”
When she returned to the nursing home on Monday, Mallory said, she managed to convince workers there to let her in. She found her mom no longer had a roommate.
“She was gone,” she said. “The halls were all empty except for a few employees. There were caution signs on almost every single door.”
Employees of the nursing home told Mallory, as she left, that she should not return in order to keep the coronavirus from spreading into the community, she said.
“I’m sure it’s out in the community now," Mallory said. “I’m not concerned about getting it myself. I’m healthy. But I’m concerned for my mom about getting the disease, and also getting the care that she needs.”
The new coronavirus that emerged from Wuhan, China, has infected roughly 90,000 people worldwide, killing 3,000. Nine of those deaths have been in the U.S., all in Washington state, and at least five of them linked to Life Care. A total of 27 cases had been confirmed across Washington, with most confirmed infections located in Kirkland and other communities around Seattle.
“We expect the number of cases will increase in the coming days and weeks,” Jeffrey Duchin, health officer for King County and Seattle, said during a press conference Monday. “The risk for all of us will be increasing."
His recommendations for everyone: “more hand-washing” and “less face-touching.”
For most people who contract COVID-19, the infection is likely to cause only mild or moderate symptoms and should not require hospitalization. However, it can become very serious for the elderly and for those with chronic diseases. In that sense, Life Care represents one of the worst-case scenarios in the eyes of public health experts.
“It’s going to be a disaster,” Charlene Harrington, an expert on nursing homes at the University of California, San Francisco, told the Associated Press.
COVID-19 is especially likely to fester anywhere a large number of vulnerable people are gathered. “I think that’s what we’re seeing in Washington State,” David Gifford, chief medical officer of the American Health Care Association, said during a separate press conference on Monday. Anyone infected while inside a nursing home could expose others in the local community should they venture outside, and reports that firefighters who responded to the facility had flu-like symptoms raised the specter of a wider outbreak in the area.
A King County public health spokesperson told The Daily Beast officials were working to identify close contacts of the confirmed cases at the facility, which may include family members, co-workers and emergency responders. To help keep the case count from climbing in Kirkland and elsewhere, Gifford recommended that current nursing home residents refrain from leaving facilities, and employees and visitors with any symptoms refrain from entering.
He also noted that all nursing homes should have emergency preparedness and infection control plans in place, and that those “should be more than adequate for a viral pandemic.”
Along with placing a hold on admissions, the Life Care Center of Kirkland is currently forbidding any visitors inside the facility, according to a statement from Ellie Basham, the center’s executive director. “Current residents and associates continue to be monitored closely, specifically for an elevated temperature, cough, and/or shortness of breath,” she wrote. “Any resident displaying these symptoms is placed in isolation. Associates are screened prior to beginning work and upon leaving.”
She added that the facility was also following infection control recommendations, including “proper hand-washing techniques and wearing masks, gowns, and gloves when caring for any symptomatic patients.”
Approximately 2.2 million people live in long-term care facilities across the U.S. One of the bigger players is Brookdale Senior Living, which owns and operates more than 800 senior living communities and retirement communities, including several in Washington State. Brookdale was “acting with an abundance of caution, reinforcing our policies and procedures for contagious illnesses such as influenza with staff,” Heather Hunter, a spokesperson, said in a statement. Their efforts include providing reminders about washing hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds and staying home when sick, she said.
“We have a corporate emergency response team in place to provide support to the local teams, especially in the event of a confirmed case of COVID-19,” added Hunter. If a confirmed case were to occur, she wrote, they “would follow the guidelines of the CDC recommendations for confirmed cases in health care settings; those guidelines include steps to minimize chances for exposure, adhering to personal protection protocols, and managing visitor access.”
Outside the Kirkland facility on Monday afternoon, the street was flooded with television crews—a couple of reporters wearing face masks—and a steady rain. Jennifer Palau, 49, of Redmond, Washington, was walking her dog, Stella, through the commotion. She had dressed the animal in a pink raincoat, but neither she nor Stella were wearing a face mask.
“She’s not very concerned. We are both not concerned,” Palau told The Daily Beast. However, she did note that the outbreak will be keeping her two children home from school on Tuesday. Officials have closed their middle school—part of the Northshore district—in response to the outbreak, she said, one of several closures in the area.
Less than half a mile away, Jeffrey Rojas, 24, tended the cash register and coffee bar at Starbucks. His dark hair was tied up in a bun, his hands covered by latex gloves. “I don’t usually wear these,” he explained.
“Knowing how fast this can spread, I was worried,” Roja told The Daily Beast. “Now I’m expecting it. But you can only do what you can do.”
For him, that means washing his hands “all the time” and using a “five-gallon jug of hand sanitizer” to protect both himself and his customers.
Across the street from the Life Care Center, Judy Ramsdell said she failed to find any face masks or hand sanitizer on the shelves of local stores, but did manage to purchase a bottle of Clorox bleach to help keep her surroundings sanitized.
At 75, Ramsdell is of similar age to some of her nursing home neighbors who have fallen ill.
“I’m healthy. Unfortunately, some of those people are not so lucky,” said Ramsdell, nodding to the facility. “My concern is for the people over there—the workers and patients and families who want to visit. I’m sad to see this happen to them.”