by Carolyn Bick
A week ago, Janet C. returned to her home in Rainier Beach, where she spent time with her husband, who has asthma. She kissed her son goodnight. When her daughter, who also has asthma, awakened from bad dreams, Janet consoled the girl, and slept in bed with her.
Then, days later, she learned that she had been exposed to the novel coronavirus. She’s not worried for herself, she said. She’s worried about her daughter, whose allergies are triggered by pollen.
“There was something on CNN yesterday about at this time of the year … asthma being triggered so easily with pollen,” Janet said. “My kid is pretty under control, but she still uses her rescue medication every so often, when … the allergens get really strong. And in the last three days, it’s been like that.”
Janet works as a social worker for a multi-state healthcare provider. She was exposed to the novel coronavirus, while in the home of an elderly patient, when she took off her face shield, but kept on her mask. It was so hot in the patient’s residence that Janet found it difficult to breathe through both the mask and shield. The patient said she hadn’t tested positive for the novel coronavirus, wasn’t showing symptoms of COVID-19, and believed she hadn’t been exposed, so Janet thought she was safe. It wasn’t until several days later that it was discovered that someone who had visited the patient the same day as Janet had tested positive.
So, on April 22, Janet walked to the city’s first walk-up testing site at the Atlantic City Boat Ramp, just across from Rainier Beach High School. The site was set up by the University of Washington’s School of Medicine, and funded by the Paul G. Allen Foundation. It’s meant for South Seattle-based frontline healthcare workers like Janet, as well as vulnerable populations in the South End, like seniors and people of color who are showing symptoms of the virus.
While the test itself and the turnaround time for results will be quick — just one day — Janet will only know if she has the virus today. The test is simply a point-in-time picture, and can’t tell Janet if she had it in the past, or if she will develop it in the next week or so, Dr. Nancy Sugg said.
Sugg is the medical director of Harborview’s Pioneer Square Clinic and Downtown Homeless Programs, and is one of the medical personnel staffing the testing site. Kitted up in personal protective gear, she and about a dozen other medical professionals sheltered from the rain underneath the overhang of the Healthcare for the Homeless van, out of which they were performing testing for the novel coronavirus.
While the turnout on the van’s first morning in Rainier Beach wasn’t big, Sugg acknowledged that it will take time to build trust, and for the word to really get out. She said she was happy to see people from diverse communities and seniors come to get tested.
“Often, they are in a home with other people, so they want to make sure that they don’t have something that they are spreading,” Sugg said. “I think what we are seeing so far is good. I hope that we get a lot more walk-up people coming in, because we want to make sure that people who don’t have cars are able to get screened. That’s another group that I think is missed.”
Due to her age, Sugg herself falls into the vulnerable category, but she said she isn’t worried. She and the rest of the medical personnel have enough personal protective equipment for themselves. What does worry her are the many unknowns about this virus.
“I think the way you get on a pandemic is you screen, you test, you isolate. You screen, you test, you isolate. … That’s what it takes,” Sugg said. “I think there’s a lot about asymptomatic people that are positive that we don’t understand, and so I think that’s a bit of a black box for us to know what does that really mean and what should we be doing.”
Moreover, the current data doesn’t account for the potential for a second wave of infections, Sugg said. It’s also unknown how the novel coronavirus will respond to spring and summer conditions. Though related cold and flu viruses tend to die off in the warmer months, the rate of infections in warm, sunny places like Florida has once again started to ramp up. Despite this, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis decided to open certain beaches, and has talked about reopening other businesses.
Even though Sugg thinks Washington State has done a good job when compared to responses like that in Florida, she still thinks it could have done better.
“I think the thing we have been the most behind on is testing, and part of it is because we had such stringent criteria for a very long time, and you only test for these symptoms, and then we find out the COVID[-19] can appear in many different ways,” Sugg said. “I think that we’ve probably gone way too long being very stringent with who we test. … I think we should have as many people tested as we can to get on top of this, before we think about opening up the state.”
Janet is the only one in her household who goes out grocery shopping or to do any errands, as her husband is heavily medicated for his asthma. She hopes she isn’t sick, but she is grateful the testing site is there. Though she has been on vigilant watch for symptoms, including checking her temperature twice a day, as mandated by her employer, Janet said her employer won’t test its staff, unless they show symptoms.
“For me, I have to think of my family versus what this protocol is, and that’s why I came here,” Janet said, waving her hand towards the parked testing van. “I’m happy that this is happening. I think this is a community that really needs it.”
Featured image: Medical staff react to another staffer at Rainier Beach’s Atlantic City Boat Ramp novel coronavirus testing site in Seattle, Washington, on April 22, 2020. (Photo: Carolyn Bick)
Carolyn Bick is a journalist and photographer based in South Seattle. You can reach them here.