Coronavirus claimed a life in rural Washington. Now a community prepares for what could come next.

QUINCY, Grant County — The Thursday evening meal at the senior center offers a welcome chance for friends to meet. They start with a brief prayer. They dine, family-style, on old standbys like oven-baked chicken with sides of macaroni and cheese. Once the plates get cleared away, they play rounds of dominoes and hands of pinochle.

On March 7, the new coronavirus took the life of a Quincy man in his 80s who frequently attended these dinners.

Last week, instead of offering a place to gather and grieve, the center shut down due to the potential for the infection to spread. And the man’s widow, as well as several other members, were stuck in voluntary quarantine.

“We are an amazing, closely knit group of people at our senior center. We care for each other. We watch out for each other,” said Pam Barrow, a friend of the deceased who spent the week shut inside her residence on the north side of Quincy along with her husband, Glenn Barrow. “It really has been difficult.”

This was the first confirmed death east of the Cascades from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus that has raced around the globe, slamming the Puget Sound region and hitchhiking across the Cascades to redefine risks in this much more sparsely populated swath of the state.

As of Sunday, this Quincy case is one of 14 confirmed in the 20 counties of Eastern Washington, a fraction of the state’s total of more than 769, including 42 deaths. The virus appears to have been present in this region for weeks, and the case tally here, as elsewhere, is expected to keep rising as more testing is done.

Public health officials are working with hospitals and clinics to marshal limited resources in what has become a seven-day workweek as they divert staff from other important work such as maternal health. They are fielding calls of concern from the community — including growers who rely on a large labor force, many lodged in camps, for pruning and harvests. And they are wrestling with what additional measures may be needed.

Statewide, schools are shut down, and Inslee on Sunday released a statement saying he would sign an emergency proclamation temporarily prohibiting in-person service at bars and restaurants and prohibiting gatherings of more than 50 participants.

One Grant County recommendation announced over the weekend called for postponing any event of 20 or more people.

“If the spread and pattern of this condition in our communities is reflective of aggressive disease, then all interventions will be on the table,” said Dr. Alex Brzenzy, a family medicine physician who serves as the public health officer for Grant County. “And we need to have an ongoing discussion about what will be necessary and what is the type of pain we will have to endure in order to make our community a safer place.”

Quincy, Wash., on March 7 lost a resident to COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. This was the first — and as of Friday —the only death from the virus in Eastern Washington. (Amanda Snyder / The Seattle Times)

A senior community shocked

In Quincy, the arrival of the coronavirus is a jarring development for a bustling town of more than 7,400, which on a blue-sky day offers vast vistas of the wind-blown Columbia Basin. Quincy has prospered from irrigation that turns desert lands into orchards, farm fields and vineyards. More recently, cheap hydropower has drawn tech companies, such as Microsoft, to build electricity-guzzling data centers that employ hundreds.

There also has been an influx of retirees from other parts of Pacific Northwest and California, who have been drawn here by the wide-open spaces and more affordable real estate. Many have joined the Quincy Senior Center, located in an aging building that has emerged as an important place to mingle, and membership during the past two years has swelled from 64 to 150 people.

The Quincy man who died, along with his wife, both were active members of the senior center, according to Barrow.

How he got the virus remains unclear.

Cars drive down State Route 28, the main road that cuts through Quincy, Wash., in Grant County. The rural county recently experienced its first death. from the novel coronavirus Public health officials are investigating how it got there and if anyone else was exposed. (Amanda Snyder / The Seattle Times)

Grant County health department officials say that the man had not recently traveled internationally or even over to Western Washington.

“We are looking for individuals who could have come from Seattle to activities in our region,” Brzenzy said earlier last  week.

Barrow says that her friend did have respiratory problems that made him more vulnerable. He became sick in February, attending fewer senior center events while his wife continued to join in line dancing, exercise classes and other activities.

By Feb. 29, his condition had deteriorated, and he was admitted to the Central Washington Hospital in Wenatchee.

During his first two days at the hospital, he did not meet the early guidelines for testing. Then the criteria shifted, and on Monday, March 2, hospital staff moved him to isolation. They took a specimen that was confirmed to be positive on the day he died — five days later, according to Andrew Canning, a spokesman for Confluence Health, which operates the hospital.

“We were very shocked, and there were tears,” said Stacia Soukup, the senior center’s director.

Stacia Soukup, director of Quincy Senior Center, is looking forward to the day when this building can reopen and serve as a community gathering place. The center shut down after one of its members died March 7 from the novel  coronavirus. Soukup grieves the loss amid concerns that the virus could spread among the center’s elderly members.  (Amanda Snyder / The Seattle Times)

Working with the Grant County Public Health District officials, she developed a list of senior center events — dating as far back as a Feb. 13 Valentine’s Day dinner — that the man or his wife attended, where others may have been exposed. But after consulting with the center’s board, she decided to suspend all activities.

“We’re not a panicky membership. But we are trying to be as cautious as we can,” Soukup said. “If someone else was to be carrier, do they come in and start the whole process all over again?”

Testing expands

Public health officials in Eastern Washington say the tiny number of confirmed cases in their region is not a reason to let down their guard. It may, at least in part, reflect the difficulties in getting coronavirus tests.

“We needed more testing five weeks ago,” said Troy Henderson, director of public health in Whitman County, which is located at the eastern edge of the state. “We will never have a confirmed case if we can’t test for the coronavirus.”

Last week, there was some progress, according to Henderson and other Eastern Washington public health officials.

In Washington, university and state laboratories offer coronavirus services, and a private laboratory, LabCorps, began offering tests that are supposed to deliver results within three to four days after a specimen is picked up. And physicians can now order these tests without first clearing this order with a county public health official.

Advanced registered nurse practitioner Justin Stoltzfus, middle, and medical assistant Blanca Quintero speak with a patient who came in with flu-like symptoms for testing at a parking lot site set up at the Quincy Community Health Center. Staff can test a specimen for the flu at the clinic, and specimen can be sent to other laboratories for coronavirus testing.  (Amanda Snyder / The Seattle Times)

In Grant County, there also has been an increase in the numbers of people seeking these tests due to flu-like symptoms of coughs, fever and sore throats, according to Theresa Adkinson, administrator for the Grant County Health District. This might reflect an uptick in the numbers of people coming down with respiratory infections. But it also could be that more people want tests due to all the concerns about coronavirus. 

Grant County Health District Administrator Theresa Adkinson is, along with others on her small team, helping respond to the recent COVID-19 case in Grant County. “Public health is underfunded, ” Adkinson says. In recent weeks, she has had to divert staff from other work, such as maternal health, to focus on the coronavirus. Adkinson says public health has been underfunded since the 1990s, which makes responding to this outbreak more difficult for public health departments.  (Amanda Snyder / The Seattle Times)

When these patients come into a clinic, there is always a risk they could expose others. So the Quincy Community Health Center has opened an outdoor testing station in a portion of the parking lot. Patients stays inside their cars as staff in protective gear take swabs of specimens.

A quick test at the health center can determine within 15 minutes whether a patient tests positive for an influenza strain. If not, the staff can opt for a second swab that will then be sent off site for a coronavirus test.

“Every person that we feel needed to be tested has been tested,” said Lynn Bales, operations director for the health center, which is part of the Moses Lake Community Health Center.

A tough year

The Quincy health center is one of the frontline providers for farmworkers whose numbers surge each year as the weather warms and fields and orchards green.

For the fruit growers that employ most of these men and women, the arrival of the coronavirus in Eastern Washington is more bad news in what already has shaped up to be a difficult year due rising expenses and a downturn in apple markets.

“At these prices, many orchards aren’t worth farming, ” said Sean Gilbert, a Yakima Valley apple grower.

Workers set up a divider in an apple nursery in Grant County on March 11. Farmers, and growers this year will take extra precautions to be on watch for the coronavirus among their workers. Some who operate labor camps plan to set aside space to isolate workers who show symptoms. (Amanda Snyder / The Seattle Times)

Many farmworkers who prune and pick the fruit trees are recruited from Mexico and Central America under a federal Department of Agriculture temporary work visa program. As the coronavirus causes big disruptions in travel, farm industry officials have been keeping a wary watch on the southern border but say they have received no indication that the labor program is at any risk of being suspended.

The growers are required by federal law to provide housing, which include a network of camps in fruit-growing regions. Camp managers are stocking up on hand sanitizers and cleaning materials, trying to prepare for any cases of coronavirus.

In Grant County, growers can build on the experiences from last year when an outbreak of mumps forced some workers to temporarily refrain from making trips to town. “The guys weren’t happy about it but they got the word from state Department of Health,” said Dan Fazio, of WAFLA, an organization that assists state growers in recruiting foreign workers.

This year, there will be more scrutiny by crew bosses to make sure that workers who show signs of illness don’t stay in the orchards. They are also developing strategies for isolating workers in the camps. That is not a big problem now, when there are lots of empty beds, but will be more difficult later in the season as the camps fill up.

So far, in Grant County, public health officials have not confirmed any coronavirus cases among farmworkers.

They have focused their tracking of the virus  through the community by researching the contacts of the Quincy man who died, whose case remained — as of Friday — the only confirmed one in the county.

This is a time-consuming and delicate task — it involves reaching out to grieving family members who also are in need of emotional support.

“We look at safe ways that we can get families together. It could be an outdoor funeral,” said Adkinson, the administrator of the Grant County public health district. “We really do in public health understand the human side. … Sometimes we have to make tough decisions where we can’t allow the family to do everything they want.”

At the senior center earlier last week, the only activity inside came from a crew scrubbing the rugs and countertops in the empty dining room and quiet kitchen. Anyone who dropped by found the front door locked and displaying a public health notice detailing 11 different February events where people who attended may have been exposed to the coronavirus.

As of Saturday, another senior in his 60s had tested positive for the coronavirus.

Soukup, the senior center director, is looking forward to the time when Thursday night dinners can resume. If the danger of the virus has ebbed, she is eager to share a few hugs.

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