A Seattle man in his 50s with underlying health conditions but no known exposure to a coronavirus patient has died, marking the first reported death from COVID-19 in the United States, Washington state health officials said Saturday.
More than 50 people in a Seattle-area nursing facility were reported sick and being tested for the virus. West Coast health officials are concerned that a growing number of people are being infected despite not having traveled in areas with outbreaks or being exposed to anyone who has.
A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention team was traveling to Washington on Saturday to investigate the man’s death and the outbreak at the nursing home in the same eastern Seattle suburb where he died. A healthcare worker and a resident of the facility that cares for elderly, vulnerable patients in Kirkland, Wash., have been hospitalized with the new coronavirus, health officials said.
Residents and staffers at Life Care Center of Kirkland are reportedly ill or hospitalized with pneumonia or other respiratory conditions of unknown cause, said Dr. Jeffrey Duchin, public health officer for Seattle and King County. About half the people with symptoms are residents and half are staffers, officials said.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency Saturday as more tests were being conducted to determine whether others had contracted the illness. Seattle-area officials said they would consider canceling public events if the situation worsened but asked residents meanwhile to wash their hands and stay home if they had symptoms of respiratory illness.
“We do feel that the risk to the general public is increasing,” Dr. Kathy Lofy, state health officer for the Washington State Department of Health, said during a briefing by officials in Seattle on Saturday. But officials do not believe that widespread transmission is occurring, she said.
The hospitalized patient who died had no recent history of travel but had chronic health conditions that make people vulnerable to the coronavirus, Duchin said. He declined to release further details about the man, who died at EvergreenHealth Medical Center, a Kirkland hospital where a second patient with the virus is also being treated.
The two patients being treated from Life Care Center are one of its residents and a healthcare worker. The resident is a woman in her 70s, in serious condition at EvergreenHealth, and the worker is a woman in her 40s, in satisfactory condition at Overlake Medical Center in Bellevue.
Officials said these patients and the man who died were not known to have crossed paths. The man was not a resident of the nursing home.
Duchin said the 10-member CDC team would conduct a meticulous investigation in search of the source of the coronavirus in Kirkland. Members of the team, which may grow, will also determine who came in contact with the patients subsequently diagnosed with the illness.
The team will help identify, isolate and test Life Care residents who may be at risk, Duchin said. Residents will remain at the facility unless they need hospitalization, he said, but will be segregated according to symptoms. “No mixing people who are sick with people who are not sick,” he said.
Dr. Frank Riedo, EvergreenHealth medical director of infection control, said that the diagnosis of the man who died there occurred after the CDC changed its guidelines Tuesday to allow testing of anyone with severe respiratory illness, regardless of whether they had traveled or were known to have been otherwise exposed to the coronavirus. On Thursday, he said, “we opted to look at our most critically ill patients.”
The man who died had contracted the illness before being admitted to the hospital with serious respiratory symptoms, he said.
Riedo said it’s likely that there are more coronavirus cases in the Seattle area. “What we’re seeing is the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “In all likelihood, there is ongoing low-level transmission.”
But Duchin said that 80% of coronavirus cases are mild and that people with the illness can stay at home. “However, as these recent cases demonstrate, it can be severe,” he said.
Gov. Inslee said the state of emergency he declared Saturday would enable state agencies to use “all resources necessary” to prepare for and respond to the outbreak.
“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,” Inslee said. “We will continue to work toward a day where no one dies from this virus.”
Inslee said the priority was to slow the spread of the virus. “Our healthcare professionals say the easiest way to do that is to practice good hygiene — wash your hands often, sanitize frequently touched surfaces, and stay home when you’re sick,” the governor said in a statement. “Preventing future cases will require the work of all of us.”
The nation’s first case of COVID-19 was found in January in a Seattle-area man who had traveled to Wuhan, China, where the outbreak began. He was treated in isolation and has recovered.
In Oregon, health officials were dealing with the state’s likely first case of coronavirus, which was announced Friday. The patient, who works at a suburban Portland elementary school, was hospitalized west of the city, in Hillsboro.
Officials have not released the person’s age, gender or condition. The school where the person works, Forest Hills Elementary in Lake Oswego, Ore., has been closed, and a crew arrived Saturday to perform a germ-annihilating deep cleaning.
Both Oregon and Washington are now able to test suspected coronavirus samples locally, speeding their response. A Washington state laboratory is gearing up to test 200 specimens a day, operating 24 hours, and officials hope to increase the capacity by testing as well at commercial labs.