My town, Seattle, has fancied itself the city of the future since 1962, when it erected a flying saucer on stilts called the Space Needle and staged the Century 21 Exposition. The rise of several eras’ defining technology companies—Boeing, Microsoft, Amazon—cemented the notion.
Now that aspiration has come true in a way none of those jet-age dreamers could have imagined or wanted: Seattle became the point of the pandemic spear, the epicenter of the novel coronavirus pandemic in America. Washington state, with less than a fifth California’s population, has had more confirmed coronavirus cases (2,221 as of Monday, 1,170 of them in Seattle and surrounding King County) and more than three times as many deaths (110; 87 of them in and around Seattle).
Last week, the tally of confirmed cases in New York, with its far larger and denser population, vastly overtook Seattle’s total. But most other American cities are still days or weeks away from where we are on the curve. Our experience here, as the U.S. metropolis that has been weathering COVID-19 longest, can still tell people and policymakers elsewhere something about what to expect and how to deal with it.
It won’t be pretty, even after you get used to empty store shelves and restaurants, gyms and other public establishments being closed. Be prepared for field hospitals, triage plans and campaigns to fabricate hospital protective gear from hardware store materials. But resilient souls may also find solace and renewal in the quiet and solitude of a lockdown, a reconnection with nature and loved ones.
If anyone should have been prepared for such a catastrophe, Seattleites should have. For decades, we’ve been told we should stash away emergency supplies of food, water and other essentials against the megaquake that, if it arrives on the schedule of the last 40 major Cascadia earthquakes, could strike anytime now. But still, we were caught short and packed into the supermarkets and big boxes at unhealthy proximity, cleaning the shelves of spaghetti, canned tuna, sanitizers and toilet paper. The crowds grew so thick that Seattle’s Costco store laid out shipping crate queues and began metering entry.
And if any place had the expertise and experience needed to prepare for a pandemic, it should have been Seattle, home to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a leading public health investor and innovator; the University of Washington’s cutting-edge schools of medicine and public health; and a slew of other biomedical research centers. These institutions swung into action, some as early as December, when the epidemic loomed. One UW team developed and distributed an early test for the virus; last week Kaiser Permanente’s Seattle research center launched the first human trials of a prospective vaccine. But the UW researchers found themselves stymied by red tape, cross-purposes confusion and sclerotic supply channels at the federal level; unable to get speedy federal approval for their test, they seized on a regulatory loophole to deploy it.
Even here, for all the depth of local medical infrastructure, stocks of the most basic protective gear—gloves, gowns, eye covering and especially masks—were quickly depleted. “We have health care workers wearing bandannas at this point,” Dr. Scott Lindquist, Washington state’s chief epidemiologist, told The Seattle Times last week. “Our warehouse is empty. Literally, we don’t have any [equipment] to be given out.” Unable to obtain face shields, experts at the Seattle-area headquarters of Providence Health’s six-state hospital network created a prototype out of hardware and craft-store materials, then assembled 20 administrative staffers to build 500 copies.
Governor Jay Inslee announced Friday that more supplies, including 1.6 million of the coveted N95 masks, were expected soon from federal stockpiles—but, as state and medical officials nationwide have discovered, counting on federal help can be an exercise in disappointment. On March 17, in an effort to bolster Washington’s access to aid and its flexibility to respond to COVID-19, Inslee asked President Donald Trump to declare a “major disaster” in Washington. Over the weekend, Trump said he would—but that he would send the Navy hospital ship Mercy, which Inslee also requested, to Los Angeles instead.
Here, as elsewhere, everyone from private practitioners to hospitals and first-response agencies has struggled to get test kits and trembled at the prospective consequences of not being able to test quickly and widely. About two weeks ago, Jeffrey O’Connor, a family practitioner in Spokane, received eight test kits. “We used them right away, doing all our testing in people’s cars. One came back positive.” No more kits arrived—nor masks or other safety gear. O’Connor wound up buying a construction face shield at a hardware store. Fortunately, Spokane, like Seattle, set up a drive-through test site, where he now sends patients, and which has identified more cases. He’s hopeful that it will keep up with the need.
“It’s not real bad in Spokane yet,” O’Connor says wistfully—a sentiment shared by many on the outbreak’s fringes. “Only about 20 cases. But a month from now, it’s going to be like Seattle. We’re just waiting for the epidemic to come here.”
Meanwhile, the state’s medical services are making accommodations that would have seemed unthinkable a few months ago. On March 17, Inslee ordered a stop to all elective surgeries and other nonurgent medical procedures. Medical providers were already drastically altering and redirecting their operations, in ways that may endure after the pandemic passes. “We’ve moved almost exclusively to telehealth—doing pretty much everything online,” says one Seattle primary-care physician, speaking anonymously because he did not have authorization from the network he belongs to. “That’s actually worked out pretty well. … There are people who need to be seen … but an awful lot of stuff can be handled by video chat.”
But local officials and providers face bigger, grimmer questions about health care delivery. They’ve begun planning how to apportion critical care if, or when, COVID-19 overwhelms their resources: Who gets a precious ventilator, and who, unlikely to survive anyway, gets morphine? Such triage was the stuff of battlefields until the novel coronavirus struck Wuhan and Milan.
Likewise tent hospitals. Or, as one ball-dribbling neighbor told KUOW-FM radio while a big white tent rose on a soccer field just north of Seattle, “Honestly, the first thing we thought was ‘Zombie apocalypse movie.’ That’s the only time you see a field hospital.” Seattle’s King County is erecting just such a hospital to provide 200 of the 3,000 additional hospital beds it expects to need. It’s also bought a motel (with suitable ventilation to prevent recirculating viruses) for emergency housing for homeless patients, and is shopping for more.
For all the medical challenges, Seattle would seem better positioned than many locales to weather the pandemic’s economic effects. Its huge technology sector is relatively resilient against local shocks and amenable to working from home. Its largest employer, Amazon, is scrambling to meet demand and trying to hire 100,000 more warehouse workers as even more shopping shifts online. Amazon’s shares rose 11 percent last week and 3 percent on Monday, even as the wider market tanked. The state’s $20 billion agriculture and food processing industry is also cushioned against market shocks; people have to eat.
Nevertheless, unemployment has surged faster here than in the rest of the country. In the last week that’s been reported, ending March 14, unemployment claims rose by a third nationwide. In the same period they more than doubled in Washington state and more than tripled in Seattle. Local employers’ use of SharedWork, a state program that helps them reduce workers’ hours without cutting pay or laying them off, grew by 500 percent. The state Employment Security Department received about 560,000 phone calls last Monday and Tuesday, 18 times the usual volume; its website had more than eight times normal traffic. States following in Washington’s wake have many more job losses to look forward to.
But, for all those downsides, and for all the supermarket jostling and hoarding, the coronavirus crisis has sparked a surge in community spirit and volunteerism around here.
Providence also declared a “100 Million Mask Challenge,” offering kits containing enough medical-grade materials to make 100 masks (which are not the same as face shields) to volunteers who would sew them up. Following what it calls an “overwhelming response,” Providence announced first that all its kits had gone out, then that it wouldn’t need more because “local manufacturing companies have stepped up to rapidly produce masks and face shields for us on a large scale.”
Do-it-yourself couriers deliver groceries and pharmaceuticals to quarantined residents. Earlier this month, the local blood bank put out a desperate call for donations; with schools and offices closed and blood drives nixed, supplies were dangerously low. A few days later it told would-be donors “thanks anyway”; a flood of donations had topped the bank back up—a bracing contrast to the 1980s AIDS crisis, when fearful donors stayed away. Two weeks ago, the Southeast Seattle Tool Library, a volunteer-run tool-lending service based in a public housing development in Seattle’s most racially and economically diverse district, closed to avoid becoming an infection vector. “Volunteers and members”—the residents who depend on the library— “both urged us to stay open,” says its director, Susan Keiff. Its board reconsidered and devised a safe, no-contact tool-dispensing protocol. On Wednesday, the tool library will reopen, so Seattleites can still put their forced confinement to use fixing up their houses.
The “we’re all in this together” crisis spirit shows in broader, less tangible ways as well. Newcomers to town routinely complain about “the Seattle chill”—locals’ notorious reserve and aloofness, their way of looking past rather than at strangers. Now, a switch seems to have flipped. “People are smiling!” says one longtime resident who grew up in an African culture that was anything but chilly. Deprived of so many other forms of social contact, we now smile and say hello to each stranger we pass, as though each might be the last person we see.
Whatever private sorrows and anxieties people bear, the public mood of the city has changed for the mellower. Reported crime dropped by 15 percent in the first week of March and 30 percent in the second week, largely because of declining property crime. That echoes the first time Seattle went into lockdown, a general strike in 1919, when police reports fell by half.
Until recently, Seattleites griped endlessly about life’s hectic pace and surging costs, the dizzily changing cityscape and above all the traffic—the downsides of a boomtown. Goodbye, boom. Goodbye, traffic. “I’m marveling at my reunion with a place I deeply miss,” says poet/painter Rajaa Gharbi, another longtime resident, “a quieter, more humble city, a Seattle that seemed to be ruled and governed by the flower pallets of its front yards, when steel highrises looked like second thoughts.”
Seattleites seem to have internalized the shelter-in-place message that is just starting to get through in some less-affected areas. We shudder at pictures of spring-break crowds frolicking blithely on Florida beaches. “As of last Friday, people were still packing the beaches at Kailua and Asian tourists were very much in evidence,” reports Seattle author Michael Gruber, recently returned from Hawaii. “Cases on Oahu are doubling every two days now, but not to worry! I flew back to Seattle and when I went out for milk the next morning, [the local food co-op] made us put on rubber gloves to tickle the tomatoes.”
Exceptions still happen. On Friday, I saw two street-repair workers huddling closely enough over a survey tripod to tap hardhats. But images of hyper-vigilance are more common. At a city park, eight friends sat in a circle on the grass, carefully maintaining six-foot separation. Masks and respirators are increasingly visible—usually on younger people, even though they are least endangered by the virus.
“I am embarrassed to be loving it,” says single mother Alyse Schregoncost of her homestay, playing dress-up and taking long walks in the park with her two young daughters. “But feeling guilty about it—I have a flexible job that is almost certain to be there when I get back.”
With virtually all the other places people go to meet up and get out of the house closed, parks have become the new bars, gyms, coffee shops, museums, dance clubs and movie houses. One, Green Lake Park, a 2.8-mile loop around the namesake lake, has gotten too crowded on sunny afternoons for the prescribed six-foot social distancing, prompting fears it may be closed.
On Friday, Seattle and King County closed all playgrounds, picnic shelters, ballfields and “other areas where essential social distancing guidelines are difficult to achieve.” They banned park gatherings, team sports, even pickup games. The Washington Trails Association, which usually advocates for more hiking, now urges against through-hiking the popular Pacific Crest Trail, which runs along the state’s mountain spine. It fears hikers will cluster at hostels and campgrounds and spread the virus to the remote communities where they re-provision.
Washington state has likewise closed its park campgrounds and picnic areas. That stops short of the complete state-parks closure Oregon instituted on Monday after users continued swarming popular sites. But such total closures threaten an unwanted consequence: Barred from meeting and relaxing outdoors, people may gather covertly, and more dangerously, indoors. “Our parks and open spaces can provide an important break in these stressful times,” King County Executive Dow Constantine said, explaining his decision to keep them open.
Fortunately, the city and the mountains and forests around it have enough parks and trails to accommodate the many thousands seeking refuge and release. Even as he labors to reduce the pandemic’s human and economic tolls, Seattle Port Commissioner Fred Felleman sees several environmental upsides to these COVID-19-forced changes in habits and venues, starting with a marked drop in greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants. “People are learning how to attend meetings remotely,” he notes, with all the attendant cost savings and impact reductions, and this shift “is likely to persist post-pandemic.” And they are “getting to spend more time in nature rather than in stores, bars and restaurants. While I’m very sympathetic that this has been devastating to our service economy, it could better connect people to the planet and instill a sense of why it’s important to protect it.”
In the meantime, however, he has some less lofty advice for other policymakers facing the pandemic: “If you’re going to make a mistake, overreact. To be accused of under-reacting and putting people in danger is much worse.”