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At the 'front lines' of coronavirus, Seattle scrambles to contain outbreak

Area residents and researchers are trying to understand how a deadly epidemic landed at their doorstep.
Image: Medics wheel out a person on a stretcher from the Life Care Center of Kirkland
Medics and a patient at Life Care Center in Kirkland, Washington, on Wednesday, March 4, 2020. Many in the area are struggling to understand how the coronavirus landed at their doorstep.Lindsey Wasson / Reuters

SEATTLE — Vicki Todd doesn't understand how the nursing home where her mother was a former patient became the center of a coronavirus outbreak in the state.

"It must have been a fluke," the resident of Kirkland, Washington, said Wednesday.

As she and other Seattle-area residents wonder how a global outbreak landed at their doorstep, some are blaming a nationwide shortage of testing kits that made testing available to only the most vulnerable, which they say allowed the virus to spread swiftly.

Washington's death toll from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, climbed to 10 Wednesday, and at least eight of the deaths have been tied to Life Care Center in Kirkland, where 50 more residents and staff members were showing signs of infection.

"She was so happy there," Todd said of her mother, who has since died of natural causes. "Everyone was so nice. I used to have lunch with her there every day."

Full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak

The coronavirus outbreak at Life Care Center, about 20 minutes from downtown Seattle, caught the state and the country by surprise. The virus spread well beyond Life Care Center, stretching to a Facebook contractor and an Amazon employee. Microsoft, headquartered in nearby Redmond, asked its employees to work from home.

Until last month, most of the COVID-19 deaths had been in mainland China, where the virus originated last year. Then the ill-fated Diamond Princess cruise ship was quarantined off Japan for two weeks after hundreds of passengers tested positive for coronavirus. People panicked once the virus hit U.S. soil. Masks and hand sanitizer sold out. Major events were canceled, and workers were told to stay home if they showed signs of infection.

Along with the inevitable concern came confusion. Only people with severe respiratory disease could be tested. Federal public health officials said that the number of tests was limited in the U.S. and that they should be saved for vulnerable populations, including people over age 60 and those with pre-existing conditions.

People with common colds or less severe symptoms could not be tested.

"It would have been better if we knew in advance," Seattle resident Renne Adams said. "This has been around for a month, and nobody said anything."

She worries that the virus will continue to spread before it can be contained.

"I expect that," she said with resignation.

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Last week, federal health officials admitted to missteps in the early days of testing U.S. patients. Some states, including Washington, received test kits that were inconclusive or only partly accurate. Officials in other states said they were hamstrung by narrow criteria that limited who could be screened.

"This has not gone as smoothly as we would have liked," said Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

UW Medicine, a network of hospitals and clinics affiliated with the University of Washington, announced new lab testing capabilities Wednesday to address the national test shortage. Rather than wait for the CDC's permission to test people, the Seattle-based lab can perform its own testing.

The Clinical Virology Lab at UW Medical Center anticipates being able to test 1,000 to 1,500 samples a day by the end of the week, up from the current 200 a day.

The lab got emergency authorization from the Food and Drug Administration after federal and state health officials acknowledged problems with slow and inaccurate testing. It got permission Saturday to begin testing, but researchers there said they had started working on the problem in January.

"Testing is the main weapon we have," said Dr. Keith Jerome, who heads the virology division of the Department of Laboratory Medicine at the University of Washington medical school. "Until we have a vaccine, this is our major tool."

Yet Todd remains skeptical about whether U.S. health officials have a handle on the outbreak.

"I just don't trust them," she said.

Todd doesn't blame Life Care Center, where her mother stayed for two or three weeks at a time, for the local coronavirus outbreak. The problem, Todd said, is the lack of available testing.

Researchers are hopeful that expanding access to coronavirus testing at laboratories like the one in Seattle could help ease the crisis.

"Seattle and the West Coast are at the front lines," Jerome said.

Access to tests remains limited. Patients must first contact their primary care doctors, and then they can be tested only if they have a high fever and a deep, dry cough, said Dr. Alex Greninger, assistant director of the UW Medicine Clinical Virology Lab, who led the team that developed the new tests.

For now, the lab is accepting specimens from throughout the country but will prioritize local patients if supplies dwindle.

"We are not winning now against this virus," Greninger said. "Our work is just beginning."

CORRECTION (March 5, 2020, 6:58 a.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the name of the federal agency that authorized UW Medicine to proceed with new tests for the coronavirus. It is the Food and Drug Administration, not the Federal Drug Administration. The article also misstated the city where Microsoft Corp. is headquartered. Its headquarters is in Redmond, Washington, not Bellevue, Washington.