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How the Government Lost Control of the First Coronavirus Outbreak


Back in February, the U.S. was still largely untouched by the deadly coronavirus as it spread throughout China and Europe – however, it was only a matter of time before it showed up on our shores.

New investigations reveal what led to the first deadly outbreak of the virus here in the U.S. At the time, news cameras were circling around Life Care Centers of America, a nursing home in Kirkland, Washington, just outside of the Seattle area. The facility ended up getting hammered by the deadly virus, but it wasn’t clear what went wrong – until now.

Testing for an Unknown Virus

Before the coronavirus arrived, Life Care Center was known as a five-star, highly skilled nursing facility, but it would soon become ground zero for one of the deadliest outbreaks in the history of the U.S. We’d previously covered the nursing home in an article earlier this year.

Nancy Butner, who’s run the facility for 14 years, said she first noticed patients coming down with a mysterious respiratory illness at the end of February, including intense cough and fever. Soon, they had a medical emergency on their hands. The facility began sending patients to nearby Evergreen Hospital.

A transcript from a 9-1-1 call at the time:

Dispatcher: Okay, is this the Life Care Center of Kirkland?

Caller (Life Care):  She’s short of breath…

Butner says they thought they were dealing with severe cases of pneumonia, considering they didn’t have a way to test for COVID-19 at the time. In February, all coronavirus testing was limited to Atlanta, GA, the headquarters of the CDC. However, to qualify for a test, patients must’ve recently traveled to China or been in close contact with someone that had. None of Butner’s patients met these standards, so doctors on the ground had relatively no idea what they were dealing with.

As the federal government invested more in testing, the CDC sent a test kit to Life Care Center, but administrators say the tests were defective.

Dr. Geoffrey Baird of the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology at the University of Washington School of Medicine commented, “The components of the test caused some false positives.”

However, by that time, Dr. Baird says he and his team had spent millions of dollars studying the novel coronavirus since it first appeared in China at the end of 2019. With bungled tests from the federal government, the group wanted to make their own test for COVID-19.

Dr. Baird said, “We could make a drug test to detect heroin or we could make a blood test to detect cancer. We can just do those. And then we can just offer those tests. We could’ve done that also for this.”

But in order to administer the test, they needed emergency authorization from the FDA.

“You have to send in the paperwork on paper. Then you also have to send it in on, you know, a flash drive.” Dr. Baird said, “And then to gain approval, you would need to prove that the test worked on a larger number of cases than actually had been reported in the United States.”

Dr. Francis Riedo, the medical director of infectious disease and prevention at nearby Evergreen Hospital, said he eventually pleaded with the federal government for help as the ICU kept filling up with more coronavirus patients.

It wasn’t until February 27th that testing became available at the local health department, so tests didn’t have to go all the way to Atlanta. Dr. Riedo says he didn’t waste any time getting his patients to the lab. He quickly tested 42 patients, 32 came back positive, 20 of which came from the Life Care Center in Kirkland. By that time, it was too late. The virus had taken root in the local community.

Nancy Butner admits the facility never really had the virus under control as they faced obstacles from all sides. Overall, they lost 38 residents to the disease, but no staff. However, staff shortages only worsened the problem. Nursing home employees didn’t have enough PPE to go around. They would find themselves wrapping oversized T-shirts from Walmart over their faces in lieu of facemasks.

As residents started leaving the facility, only to die at Evergreen Hospital, Life Care Center turned into a media sensation. News cameras, reporters, and family members desperate for answers started lining up outside the facility asking for information.

A Troubling Inquiry

As the chaos unfolded, Dr. Jeffrey Duchin, a 22-year veteran of the county health department, began pleading with the federal government for help, including a team of epidemiologists, disease investigators and lab support. He recalled, “It was overwhelming in so many ways because it erupted so quickly, so unexpectedly. There was just a lot of desire in our public health community to try and do something about it.”

But before additional help could arrive, another federal agency picked up the case. The Centers for Medicaid & Medicare Services began investigating the facility for possible negligence and wrongdoing.

Butner said the investigation ended up doing significant harm, especially when staff were in the middle of a deadly outbreak. She recalled, “Hours of staff time were averted to managing a survey process instead of managing a crisis in the facility and patient care.”

Instead of offering assistance, Butner said they were looking for someone to blame, but she didn’t have the authority to tell the feds to go away. “I think they wanted a scapegoat for what happened at Life Care Center Kirkland. I think that they wanted someone to blame for COVID-19 spreading. We had nothing to do with the spread across the nation.”

After months of investigations, the facility was fined $600,000 for its actions.

Vindication for Life Care

However, the administrators filed an appeal with a judge in the state last September, who ultimately sided with Life Care Center.

Butner said she sees this as a vindication of the nursing home and her colleagues who worked tirelessly to contain the virus despite limited resources. “He [the judge] found that everything we did during that time was appropriate. He ruled in our favor. I think that it was very clearly written by the judge that what we did was the best that we could do.”

It was a contentious few months for the Seattle area, but Butner and her colleagues were able to make it through to the other side. Today, Life Care Center is a quiet place free of COVID-19, but it remains a warning of what can go wrong when facilities don’t have the support they need. 

Steven Briggs
Steven Briggs is a healthcare writer for Scrubs Magazine, hailing from Brooklyn, NY. With both of his parents working in the healthcare industry, Steven writes about the various issues and concerns facing the industry today.

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