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Wash. Investigates More Possible Coronavirus Cases Amid Fears Of A Regional Outbreak


Washington state health officials have announced that the state is running coronavirus tests on about 50 people linked to a nursing home in the Seattle suburb of Kirkland, raising fears of an advanced outbreak in the region. Yesterday's announcement also included news of the first known death in the U.S. attributed to COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. As NPR's Martin Kaste reports from Seattle, the victim was a man in his late 50s who already had serious health problems.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: This is the first coronavirus death in America, or maybe it's just the first one we've recognized.

FRANK RIEDO: What prompted us to start looking is the change in the testing criteria.

KASTE: Dr. Frank Riedo is with EvergreenHealth Hospital in Kirkland, Wash., near Seattle. He says when the CDC recommended testing more categories of patients for the virus last week, his hospital sent in specimens for two of its critically ill patients. The results came back positive, including the test for the man who died.

RIEDO: What we're seeing is the tip of the iceberg. So we're seeing the most critically ill individuals. Usually, that means there is a significant percentage of individuals of less severe illness floating around out there.

KASTE: The focus right now is on a nursing home called Life Care, also in Kirkland. It has about a hundred residents. By Saturday, the state had determined that one of the residents and a staffer were ill with presumptive cases of COVID-19. Dozens more people who live or work there have respiratory symptoms and are being checked for the virus. A sign on the door banned visitors, even as Antonia Lopez came out shrugging off the situation.

ANTONIA LOPEZ: I think it's being blown out of proportion.

KASTE: She does blood draws at the nursing home. And she says she didn't notice any more people being sicker than usual.

LOPEZ: It's just new, so people are freaking out about it. But more people die from the flu every day.

KASTE: It is true that the flu kills more people right now. And most people with the coronavirus don't get severe symptoms. But COVID-19 is deadlier than flu, and it's especially risky for people with other health problems. Up the street, some of the neighbors are not feeling so complacent.

MIKE FRY: This is certainly hitting a little close to home.

KASTE: Mike and Vicky Fry are out for a walk. And they're shocked by all the TV trucks parked outside the nursing home. Vicky Fry wonders if there's something they should be doing to prepare.

VICKY FRY: Our son works for Costco. And he was saying the lines were out the door.


KASTE: And in fact, at the nearby Costco, that's exactly what's happening. Zora Shoa is stuffing supplies into every available nook of her car.

ZORA SHOA: I am prepping because I have three little kids at home. So I want to make sure I have enough stuff that I can keep longer.

KASTE: A Costco employee helping her to load the car, Mia Samaniego, says she's been seeing more and more of this in just the last couple of days.

MIA SAMANIEGO: People are mostly going for water, toilet paper, tissue paper, oatmeal - basically, food that's sustainable, can be used for a long period of time 'cause they're afraid that they're going to become quarantined and that they won't be able to leave the house to get these items.

KASTE: And on Saturday, Dr. Jeff Duchin with public health for Seattle and King County seemed to endorse the idea of a preparatory shopping trip.

JEFF DUCHIN: Have medications in your home so you don't have to go out and refill a prescription if you don't need to. Have some foods that you like to eat handy.

KASTE: Still, at this point, public health officials here are not yet talking about large-scale quarantines or even about canceling large public events, though they say that could become an option later. It depends on what patterns emerge as they ramp up coronavirus testing and try to get a better picture of just how big this outbreak is.

Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.