Washington Governor Jay Inslee declares a State of Emergency following the first two known U.S. deaths from Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), in Kirkland, on February 29, 2020. The deaths actually occur on February 26, but are not announced until days later. The victims have been residents of the Life Care Center of Kirkland. At the time of Inslee's declaration, only one of these deaths -- that of a 55-year-old man, who dies after being taken to EvergreenHealth of Kirkland -- has been confirmed as caused by COVID-19. Inslee immediately issues a proclamation stating "that a State of Emergency exists in all counties in the State of Washington" ("Proclamation by the Governor 20-05"). This emergency declaration allows the state to use all of its resources, including the Washington National Guard, to combat the disease. Inslee issues a statement the same day about the Kirkland man's death, calling it a "sad day in our state" ("Inslee Statement on Death"). It is, in fact, a sad day for the entire nation, since these are the first COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. -- at least as known at the time. Only months later would autopsies reveal that two deaths in California were caused by COVID-19 earlier in February.
'A Public Disaster'
Washington residents had been on alert since January 20, 2020, when the nation's first COVID-19 case was diagnosed in Snohomish County. However, the news on February 29 of the deaths, along with Inslee's emergency proclamation, launched a new and frightening era in the state and the nation. COVID-19 had already killed 2,900 people globally. Now the death count in the U.S. had begun.
With his proclamation, Inslee (b. 1951) made it clear how serious the situation had become in Washington. The proclamation said the disease had become "a public disaster" ("Proclamation"). King County executive Dow Constantine (b. 1961) also held a news conference on February 29 in which he activated the King County Emergency Operations Center. Dr. Jeff Duchin, the chief public health officer for King County, predicted that "telecommuting" was likely to become mandatory for many county residents (Duhigg).
The news of the death immediately rocketed across the country and the world. President Donald J. Trump abruptly held a news conference the same afternoon, warning that additional cases were likely, but also downplaying the threat. "We respectfully ask the media and politicians and everybody else involved not do anything to incite the panic, because there's no reason to panic at all," Trump said ("Trump Appeals for Public Calm").
Calm, however, was far from the prevailing mood in Washington. By March 2, more residents of the Life Care Center in Kirkland were hospitalized for COVID-19 and several more had died. It appeared that the disease was raging unchecked in the nursing home, a suspicion borne out by later developments (within weeks the count connected to the Life Care Center in Kirkland would grow to 142 confirmed cases and 29 deaths). It was also clear that the disease was by no means confined to the nursing home. In all, 18 new cases had been confirmed in the state in the three days since February 29, most of them in King and Snohomish counties.
Constantine announced plans to purchase a motel in Kent that could be used as an isolation center. Some Seattle stores reported that they were sold out of hand sanitizer and face masks. Nearly 11,000 students at the University of Washington signed a petition urging the school to close its Seattle campus. On March 4, Microsoft told employees to stay home if they could, a move taken at Constantine's urging. "Microsoft is a big deal here," Constantine later explained. "I thought if they told everyone to stay home it could shift how the state was thinking -- make the pandemic real" (Duhigg).
By March 3, at least 13 schools in Puget Sound region had closed, either because a student had tested positive, or to disinfect their buildings. Other school districts canceled classes in order to train teachers on how to teach online. Within a week, 115 public and private schools in the state would close -- including the University of Washington, which suspended in-person classes at all three of its campuses on March 6. Seattle Pacific University and Seattle University followed suit the same day. On March 11, all of Seattle's public schools formally closed.
The death toll in Washington would continue to build. On March 23, the state had 110 COVID-19 deaths, and at least 2,221 cases. Inslee took more drastic action on that day. Inslee issued a "Stay Home -- Stay Healthy" order, which required every Washington resident to stay home unless pursuing an essential activity, and closed all businesses except essential businesses. "The less time we spend in public, the more lives we will save," said Inslee ("Inslee Announces Stay Home-Stay Healthy Order"). The state's daily death toll would peak shortly afterward and slowly start down, but by April 12 the cumulative total had surpassed 500.
In April, new research would show that COVID-19 had probably been present in both the U.S. and the state earlier than previously thought. Officials in Santa Clara County in California said autopsy results showed that two deaths in that county, on February 6 and February 17, were caused by COVID-19.
Next: Governor Inslee orders a statewide school closure on March 13, 2020.