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A Week in Seattle, the Epicenter of America’s Coronavirus Crisis


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.

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.

Carmen Gray and Bridget Parkhill speak by phone to their mother, Susan Hailey, a resident at the Life Center of Kirkland, Washington, from outside her room, on Tuesday.Photograph by David Ryder / Reuters

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.”

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