Coronavirus has probably been spreading in Seattle’s suburbs for at least eight weeks, since America’s first case of COVID-19 was found at a hospital 30 miles north of the city. But while the virus was silently traveling, its lethality was hard for much of the general public to really see. Sure, Seattle’s freeways emptied out and downtown bars boarded up their windows. But most people weren’t actually witnessing emergency rooms overflowing with patients.
Then a makeshift hospital showed up on a youth soccer field.
“It’s absolutely jarring,” said Megan Lund, a mother who brought her two daughters on Friday to see the new white hospital tent towering over the field’s goal posts. Seattle’s King County built the structure last week in the suburb of Shoreline in the hopes of easing the strained health-care system. “It’s jarring that it could be filled with people who need care by next week.”
By the end of last weekend, construction crews had finished a second, identical hospital tent next to the first one, creating beds for 140 infected people under A-frame roofs that stretch from one sideline to another. The two structures looked like music festival tents you might find at Coachella, but they’re more like portable prefab buildings. They have hard walls, hard floors, power outlets, and generators for heating and cooling. The county hopes to only use the two new hospital tents for “basic care” while “any acute care or procedures would be done at a licensed medical facility,” according to Sherry Hamilton, a county spokesperson.
King County executive Dow Constantine said the county’s efforts should wake people up to the seriousness of the viral disease.
“It is a natural reaction to be shocked, but this is the new reality,” Constantine said in an interview Friday. “In every community in this county there are people who have been infected — who may or may not be showing symptoms — and may be infecting others.”
Seattle’s hospitals are already preparing for the worst, creating a regional triage strategy to save beds by selectively denying medical care to patients who are unlikely to survive the virus. A local hospital trade group CEO involved in the efforts told the New York Times last week that “It is chilling, and it should not happen in America.” But such last-ditch strategies are already playing out in Italy and previously in Wuhan, China, where the virus has overwhelmed hospital systems with too few beds and doctors to treat the number of gravely ill people. And Washington state may be just the beginning in this country.
Two floating wartime hospitals, each carrying 1,000 beds, will soon dock in Los Angeles and New York City. Trump declared on Sunday that the military will build thousands of hospital beds in New York, California, and Washington at new “medical stations.” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said he wants to build 25,000 more beds in the state by reconfiguring existing hospitals and building new facilities, and he wants to turn the Javits Center, New York City’s largest convention center, into a coronavirus hospital. Across the country, L.A. Coliseum is also being considered as a potential quarantine site.
These efforts began substantially earlier in the Seattle area, where the country’s first-known outbreak of coronavirus has already killed at least 95 people and infected 1,040 in King County alone. On March 2, when local deaths jumped from two to six in one night, Constantine started a property-buying spree, announcing that he was using his emergency powers to buy a motel for quarantine uses. Since then, the county has leased another hotel, placed modular housing units on three sites, and converted an airplane arrivals hall into a shelter. It’s also planning to build another temporary hospital tent at a park and ride lot. The county expects to have 1,100 beds available by the end of next month and was told by the county’s health department to build 3,000 beds total. The local health department said they calculated that figure based on an estimate that 40 percent of the county’s 12,000 homeless people would contract the virus.
Many of these beds will be used for people who need space to quarantine but cannot do so at home, either because they live with immunocompromised people or because they’re part of Seattle’s massive homeless population, which is considered particularly at-risk for the deadly virus. Barbara Ramey, a spokesperson for King County, said the local government “is moving at the speed of light” to set up new quarantine sites and that “this is an ongoing effort and will continue as long as necessary.”
Scientists say the coronavirus pandemic could circle the globe for months, if not years, and that it will take at least 12 to 18 months before a vaccine can be developed. A predictive model released by Propublica last week forecasts that Seattle’s hospital system will be strained beyond capacity for nearly all of that time, even if extreme containment measures are enacted.
Not every scientist is convinced by these dire predictions. Dr. John Ioannidis, a Stanford professor who said in an essay this month that the pandemic might be “a once-in-a-century evidence fiasco,” claimed Propublica’s model is faulty because it assumes 20 percent of COVID-19 patients need to be hospitalized — a rate, he said that “is probably astronomically higher than reality.” But Ioannidis told Intelligencer that he still thought Seattle’s efforts to expand hospital capacity were a good idea.
“Given the uncertainties about the proportion of people who will be infected and how many will need to be hospitalized, maximal preparedness is clearly indicated and no one can blame efforts that are trying to maximize ICU bed capacity,” Ioannidis said in an email. “At the same time, the modeling assumptions that go into these projections are incompatible with the best data that we have to-date.”
For weeks, Washington state has been the American epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, with thousands of cases that have forced hospitals to warn they are dangerously low on medical equipment. Some facilities are even asking volunteers to sew DIY protective equipment like face masks. But Seattle is now rapidly being eclipsed by outbreaks in California and especially New York, where there are now over 15,000 cases and hospitals are already warning that they need immediate government assistance.
The Washington State Department of Health said Friday that they could not predict when the region’s hospitals will become overburdened and the state does not release data on the number of people in hospital beds. But Jessica Baggett, a spokesperson for the department, said in an email that medical supplies are needed as much as new hospital beds.
Back in Shoreline on Friday, families were enjoying an unusually sunny March day, playing tennis and soccer on the fields surrounding the new field hospital. While other quarantine sites have drawn local condemnation, the hospital didn’t seem to bother locals, even if its morbid presence didn’t convince them to practice more stringent social-distancing measures by staying at home. Gina Bowker, who lives two blocks away and brought her entire family to see the new facility, said it was a good thing. “I’m proud of our city for stepping up and helping out, especially so early on,” she said. “It’s very impressive how fast they are getting this up.”
Lund, standing next to her two young daughters, said even though its sudden appearance was startling, she still supports the hospital.
“I think it’s really cool that King County and the city of Shoreline are taking proactive measures to help what’s sure to be an influx of patients and overcrowded hospitals,” Lund said. “Personally, it’s hard for our family because it’s just a very visual reminder that our kids can’t play their soccer games like they usually do. But it’s a great thing that they need right now.”