First U.S. coronavirus death sparks state of emergency in Washington state

Dr. Jeff Duchin, Health Officer, Public Health – Seattle & King County, addresses a news conference, Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020, in Seattle. A man in his 50s with underlying health conditions became the first coronavirus death on U.S. soil. (Elaine Thompson/AP via Courthouse News)

Washington Governor Jay Inslee has declared a state of emergency following the first confirmed U.S. death from the coronavirus in King County.

The order directs state agencies to use “all resources necessary to prepare for and respond to the outbreak” and authorizes the Washington National Guard to assist.

The patient who died was in his 50s and was described as a “chronically ill person,” by Dr. Frank Riedo, medical director of infection control at EvergreenHealth Hospital in Kirkland, a Seattle suburb where the patient died.

The man had no history of travel or any contact with persons suffering from the coronavirus, known as COVID-19, and his infection is presumed to be a community transmission, according to King County Public Health Officer Dr. Jeffrey Duchin, who spoke at a press conference with other King County health officials Saturday.

Two more people testing positive for the virus, a healthcare worker in her 40s and a resident in her 70s, are connected with a possible outbreak at Life Care, a Kirkland long-term care facility that has 108 residents and 180 employees, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Duchin said the patients were diagnosed with the virus after they were admitted with severe respiratory illness, and it is not believed they were infected at the hospital.

“The CDC is working with King County to provide infection control guidance,” Duchin said.

That includes monitoring first responders who treated the sick residents at the facility.

Officials from the CDC are expected to arrive in King County Sunday to investigate how the infection started at Life Care.

King County has four positive cases for COVID-19, including the person who died, but State Health Officer Dr. Kathy Lofy said the situation was “rapidly evolving,” and that would likely increase as tests results come back.

Washington State Health Department can now test for COVID-19 at their own lab instead of waiting for results from the CDC in Atlanta, Lofy said.

The lab will soon be “testing around the clock, seven days a week,” she said, and can test 200 specimens a day.

The Health Department is discussing with officials if and when to start restricting large public gatherings and canceling school, but that is not necessary now, Lofy said.

King County Executive Dow Constantine said he activated the county’s emergency operation center to provide regional support for the health crises, including developing strategies to keep public transportation running, sanitizing buses and finding appropriate spaces to isolate homeless people who may need to recover from the virus.

“We can’t stop it, but we can reduce our risks,” Duchin said, calling for residents to stay home from school or work if they feel sick and to follow CDC guidelines including hand washing and avoiding close contact with ill people.

After the patient’s death was announced, Inslee released the following statement:

“It is a sad day in our state as we learn that a Washingtonian has died from COVID-19. Our hearts go out to his family and friends. We will continue to work toward a day where no one dies from this virus.

“In partnership with the Washington State Department of Health, the Washington State Department of Emergency Management and local and community health partners, we are strengthening our preparedness and response efforts. I am committed to keeping Washingtonians healthy, safe and informed.”

President Trump held a press conference to address the death on Saturday, saying there were currently 22 known cases of coronavirus in the U.S. He announced an expansion of travel restrictions, including barring all travel to Iran and denying entry to anyone who has been to Iran in the past two weeks.

He said he would be meeting with the largest pharmaceutical companies “in the world” on Monday to discuss a vaccine for the virus.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said he expected to see more cases.

“From day one this is what we predicted,” he said, but added the country as a whole is still at a low risk.