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After Coronavirus Deaths Near Seattle, Growing Concern About Illness In Nursing Homes


Public health officials today announced four more deaths connected to the coronavirus in the Seattle area. That brings the total to six.


Local labs are scrambling to ramp up testing for the virus and to care for the sick. NPR's Martin Kaste joins us now from Seattle.

Hi, Martin.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Good afternoon, Ari.

SHAPIRO: What more do we know about the outbreak at this point?

KASTE: Well, things are kind of getting real now here in Seattle. As you know, we had the first death reported on Saturday. There was another one over the weekend. And now four more deaths are being reported. The main focus right now is still on people associated with a nursing home in one of the Seattle suburbs Kirkland. Many of the patients were sent to EvergreenHealth Hospital nearby. And Dr. Ettore Palazzo is with that hospital.


ETTORE PALAZZO: We now at this time have 10 confirmed cases of COVID-19 Evergreen. Despite our best efforts, six of those cases have died. And our condolences go out to the patients' families.

KASTE: I should say that things are kind of moving so quickly right now that the official death toll actually went up by one during this this press conference. Other officials hadn't even heard about one of the deaths that had originated in the neighboring county.

SHAPIRO: And is the nursing home the only focus of the cases in the Seattle area so far?

KASTE: Well, most of the known deaths right now are linked to it but not all. And public health officials here now completely expect that the virus is circulating in the community. There was an important discovery made over the weekend by a researcher at the Seattle Flu Study at the Brotman Baty Institute here in Seattle showing genetic evidence that this strain is probably one that was here back in January, which means that it's been circulating and just not being detected by testing. That's being blamed in part by sort of a slow rollout of clinical testing, some CDC controls that came into play there. But now there's just this big scramble to get more clinical testing online, sort of all hands on deck here in Seattle to identify as many cases as possible.

SHAPIRO: In China, this disease had a fatality rate of about 2%. Are medical experts expecting something similar in Seattle?

KASTE: Not necessarily. I talked to Helen Chu this morning. She's the principal investigator at the flu study. And she thinks that you have to keep in mind most people who get this virus will have mild symptoms. She thinks the extra time the U.S. has had to prepare will help. And there are some new drugs being tested right now. She's actually the lead investigator on - principal investigator on one of those trials. But she says if there isn't some big therapeutic breakthrough here, there may be such a surge of there - maybe a big surge of people, especially older people, needing intensive care or ventilators - that kind of thing. And I asked her if she thought the local hospitals here in Seattle had the capacity for that surge.

HELEN CHU: I don't think so. No. I think because we have so many people who are older, who have chronic lung disease, who have all of these other problems that put them at risk for poor outcomes due to coronavirus, I don't think we're going to have enough intensive care unit capacity for all of that.

SHAPIRO: And so what are officials telling people to do right now?

KASTE: Well, the mood here in Seattle is still - I mean, you know, there's still people on the street. There's still a morning rush hour. Schools are still open. But at the same time, public health officials really want people to minimize unnecessary social contact that would spread this virus more. This is Jeff Duchin with Public Health in Seattle and King County.

JEFF DUCHIN: Everything we're doing now is trying to blunt that peak and push it down by giving people advice on how to protect themselves from becoming ill and not running into the hospital if they're not seriously ill to preserve those limited resources for those who really need them. But I can tell you that even this early in the outbreak, our hospitals are feeling the strain.

KASTE: And the county, in fact, today announced that it's going to buy a motel to house people who are infected to isolate them. They're also bringing in other housing that was intended for our homelessness crisis here - some manufactured housing. So...

SHAPIRO: All right.

KASTE: ...They're getting ready.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Martin Kaste in Seattle, thank you.

KASTE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.

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