In the face of the country’s first major coronavirus outbreak, some of Washington state’s top leaders gathered on a Sunday morning in March last year for an urgent strategic discussion.
The virus was spreading through a nursing home on the outskirts of Seattle. When the meeting began, most of the first 19 deaths from the virus in the country had been recorded in the region. New cases have been reported every hour.
When the fifth slide was presented in the meeting, the mood in the room turned dark. The numbers showed several potential scenarios for the future, but almost all of them included a blue line that grew exponentially.
“My God, what’s going to happen here?” King County Warden Don Constantine thought, as he put it, as the others in the room, increasingly anxious to meet in person, left the offered candy untouched.
The meeting – which took place three days before the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic on March 11 last year – sparked a race to try to contain the virus, which has led to some of the first orders given to the United States to cancel major events. , the closing of restaurants and schools, all in the hope that the frightening possibilities offered to the participants would not materialize.
A year later, the Seattle area has the lowest death rate of the 20 largest metropolitan areas in the United States. If the rest of the country had followed Seattle, the nation could have avoided more than 300,000 deaths from the coronavirus.
In a year in which the White House took little notice of the virus and other political leaders clashed over how to contain it, Seattle’s success illustrates the value of adopting unified, one-off strategies.
Although health workers and politicians in the region behind the scenes disagree on the best ways to control the virus, they have come together to show a united front in front of the public. And the people followed his directions to a large extent.
“We couldn’t afford to send an ambiguous message,” said Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan.
The restrictions that have been in place intermittently for most of the year have hampered people’s lives and the economy. But while governors in other parts of the country have cited the economy as a reason to ease lockdowns, Seattle’s success has shown the viability of an alternate path.
Amid a widespread economic crisis, the unemployment rate in Washington state has kept pace with the national average, being lower than some places that have reopened economic activity more widely, including Arizona and Texas.
Several factors have shaped the trajectory of the pandemic, both locally and nationally. Public health experts said Seattle may have benefited in part from its demographics: a healthy population, with small families and many professionals who can work from home. It is also possible that public support for the restrictions was greater in the city as it felt the shock of suffering the first reported deaths in the country. High humidity may also have helped, scientists say, although cold weather and gray skies probably aren’t.
Researchers say Seattle has also benefited from its network of philanthropic and research organizations focused on global health, with politicians ready to listen, businesses that have left their offices since the start of the pandemic, and residents who have repeatedly indicated their willingness to change their lives to save other lives.
Even over the months, when the number of coronavirus cases in the region was still among the lowest in the country, a poll found that Washington state residents were the most likely to agree to spend Thanksgiving in the House.
Ali Mokdad, a professor at the Institute for Health Measurement and Evaluation at the University of Washington, said he was convinced that the model followed by Seattle could have been emulated, positively affecting the trajectory of the virus in the country.
Instead, he said, different states reopened their economies in advance and members of the public ignored health advice that was sometimes sabotaged by conflicting messages from politicians and businessmen. . For him, Seattle shows how the trajectory of the coronavirus could have been in the country.
“There are so many lessons we are learning here,” Mokdad said. “Unfortunately, however, few people were listening.”
Early warning for the country
Even before the home in-state isolation order was issued, Seattle residents had already shown a willingness to change their way of life.
During the outbreak’s first week in March, Microsoft and Amazon, which together employ tens of thousands of workers in the region, encouraged people to start working from home. Other companies have followed suit.
Washington University became the first major college campus to embrace distance education. While economic activity continued normally in the rest of the country, traffic in Seattle, known to be heavy, became less congested. The buses that were crowded with passengers began to run almost empty. The famous open market Pike Place Market was silent.
These initial adaptations may have helped the region avoid some of the chaos seen in New York City, where on March 13, Mayor Bill de Blasio said, “We want people to continue living normally.”
In a short time, the New York City area surpassed Seattle in terms of deaths from the coronavirus, which still has the highest per capita death rate among major metropolitan areas.
Thomas Frieden, former director of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and former commissioner of the New York Department of Health, estimated the city could have cut its spring deaths by more than half had it adopted a broad policy social. distance a week or two earlier than him. For him, the city has not yet received the message it sends about the virus.
Researchers at the University of Oxford have determined that the set of restrictions adopted by Washington state throughout the year was one of the strictest in the country. Other states that have followed strict controls, including Maine and Vermont, are also among those with the fewest cases of the virus.
Some smaller metropolitan areas, including other cities in Washington state, Portland (Oregon) and Raleigh (North Carolina), performed better than the Seattle area. They followed broader restrictions.
The cost of restrictions
The pressure to reopen the economy in many states was a response to the devastating economic consequences of prolonged isolations, and Seattle has paid a price for its smaller number of Covid cases.
Nowadays, downtown shopping areas are mostly quiet and still, with many windows closed with boards. Streets that in the past were filled with Amazon workers at lunchtime are now largely empty. Some businesses have closed for good.
Jeffrey Duchin, director of health for Seattle and King County, said the city is still trying to find the right balance between controlling the virus and letting people live their lives more normally.
The consequences that are emerging are not only economic, he said. They also include depression, domestic violence, delayed medical care, a decline in other types of immunization, and the long-term effects of children not attending school. Still, he said he was convinced the city had made the right decisions.
“The other unintended consequences can be dealt with and mitigated over time, but there is no way to bring people back from IML,” he said.