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Kirkland, Wash., becomes epicenter of coronavirus response as cases spread

Volunteers perform at the start of a service at Northshore Community Church on Sunday in Kirkland, Wash. Church leaders encouraged community members with ill family members to stay home and watch the service via live stream, and asked attendees to avoid physical greetings such as handshaking. (Jovelle Tamayo/For The Washington Post)
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Read the latest updates from Washington state, including four more deaths from coronavirus

KIRKLAND, Wash. — One church canceled Communion on Sunday and banned handshakes and hugs. More than two dozen firefighters, and some police officers, are under quarantine. The hospital urged visitors to stay home. And Lake Washington Institute of Technology said it is shutting down for two days to disinfect the campus.

This outdoorsy city of 90,000 just northeast of Seattle, known for its piney woods, water sports and a Google campus with a meandering bike path running through it, has become the epicenter of the U.S. response to the deadly coronavirus as it begins to spread along the West Coast. A 50-year-old man who died at a hospital here became the first U.S. death linked to the virus, and many others have been exposed to it, turning Kirkland into a test case to see how quickly authorities can contain the illness and the fear that accompanies it.

While there is no vaccine for covid-19, preventive steps and awareness are the best tools to prepare and protect yourself in the event of an outbreak. (Video: The Washington Post)

Authorities reported a second death Sunday, a man in his 70s who died at the same hospital the day before.

“We are gathered together today amidst news that can make us anxious or fearful. I’m sure all of our hearts are thinking about that word, ‘coronavirus,’ ” senior pastor Scott Scruggs, wearing a blue checked shirt, jeans and sneakers, said from a stage with a live band during services inside Northshore Community Church on Sunday. The crowd was thinner than usual, and Scruggs said church members were wiping door handles, discouraging touching, and urging sniffly people to watch the services from home online. “We’re doing what we can and we want to invite you to do the same.”

Coronavirus live updates

Officials in Seattle and King County confirmed four new cases of coronavirus-related illnesses on Sunday, bringing the state total to 13.

City officials said that 25 firefighters and two police officers who were exposed to the virus at the LifeCare Center of Kirkland have shown no symptoms but are under close watch, while a county health department official said there were more than 50 residents and staff at the center who were reportedly ill with symptoms. Authorities also are worried that others — including 17 nursing students and four faculty and staff members from Lake Washington Institute of Technology — were exposed to the virus at the nursing home last week during a visit.

Leslie Shattuck, a college spokeswoman, said she did not know if the students and faculty had been quarantined, noting that they were awaiting instructions from public health officials.

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The public college decided to close its 7,000-student campus in Kirkland through Tuesday to disinfect the school out of “an abundance of caution,” Shattuck said. The school also canceled a staff training session on diversity and an open house scheduled for this week.

“The health and safety of our students, faculty and staff are top of mind as we work our way through this emergency,” university president Amy Morrison said in a statement.

With a quarter of the city’s 100 firefighters under quarantine, Kirkland city officials scrambled to prepare amid a host of unknowns. It remains unclear how many residents have been exposed to the virus, though its spread seems inevitable.

On Sunday, local police and fire chiefs hunkered in a basement control center amid blinking television screens and made sure that the fire department would remain fully staffed and that backup would be available from neighboring towns in case of a fire — just one firefighter remained under quarantine at Fire Station 21 while the others from the station were quarantined in their homes.

The infected patient, who lives in Solano County, Calif., has no known link to others with the illness and had not traveled abroad. (Video: The Washington Post)

Officials also urged residents to wash their hands and stockpile enough food for several days, as they would in case of an earthquake.

Mayor Penny Sweet, who prepared homemade peanut brittle and toffee to deliver to quarantined firefighters and police officers, said the city is following the advice of public health officials and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She said the city is working to limit exposure and that she hopes the spread will be contained.

“We’re being extraordinarily cautious, but at this point in time, we are not canceling a lot of things. At the same time, if things go nuts . . . we have to be flexible,” Sweet said. “For the most part, things are fairly calm. Grocery stores have been busy. People are stocking up in case it gets worse, which is wise. I’m very confident that we’re doing everything that we can.”

Lines formed at shopping centers across the city as residents bought paper towels, disinfecting wipes and hand sanitizer amid reports of the virus spreading through parts of California, Oregon and Washington state. Some people rushed to big-box stores to stock up on medication, jars of pasta sauce and cleaning supplies. Instead of shaking hands, people waved at one another, attempting to stand a respectful six feet apart — CDC’s suggested distance to avoid possible transmission.

The Costco in Kirkland opens at 10 a.m. on Sundays, but a line began forming at the door a half-hour early.

Julie Larralde, 60, wore a mask as she stood in line. She lives close by and has been stocking up on food during the past few weeks.

“I worry more about the panic,” she said. “If we didn’t panic, I wouldn’t be here this morning. This would not be what I would do normally.”

Wentao Chen, 49, lives in nearby Bellevue. He came to Costco early to beat the crowd.

“I want to get in and out quick,” he said. “I heard that the line might be long.”

While Chen is worried about his parents and sister, who live in China, he says there’s not much he can do. Before his wife flew their children to Northern California in early February, she asked him to buy masks there. He couldn’t find any at stores nearby, so he eventually bought some online.

Others here say people are overreacting, and they went about the mundane tasks of a late-winter weekend. They pumped gas, walked their dogs and jogged amid the blossoming cherry trees, determined to enjoy the sun-splashed day ahead of a rainy forecast.

Kelley Voss, 29, and Bryce Woodland, 30, who were heading to breakfast in downtown Kirkland on Sunday, said they were not worried about coronavirus.

“I guess we haven’t been that concerned because there haven’t been that many cases among people who are healthy and young,” Voss said. “It hasn’t been worse than the flu, really. Of course, I have concern for people who aren’t young and healthy.”

At the Fred Meyer, a sprawling store where shoppers can buy engagement rings, clothing and groceries, shoppers perused flowers and Easter candy while Girl Scouts hawked cookies at the entrance.

One couple stared at the empty shelves where the anti-bacterial wipes and lotions normally sit. Their two sons, ages 10 and 8, decided to stay home because they said they were afraid of catching the virus.

“There’s nothing left,” said Erika Vences, 27, a house cleaner from Mexico, standing with her partner, Manuel Cruz, 42, a construction worker. They said they are trying to ward off the virus here while fielding phone calls from worried relatives back home in Aguascalientes. “We’re trying to keep the house even cleaner than usual.”

The lobby and cafeteria were empty at a local health center on Sunday morning, though a couple of men walked past a sign on a large easel that said: “To help ensure the health and safety of our patients, staff and community, we are discouraging visitors from coming to the EvergreenHealth Kirkland Campus.”

One man shrugged and said he was going to visit his father, who just had surgery. An elderly man in a baseball cap waved and walked in, saying, “I don’t care.”

City Manager Kurt Triplett said come Monday, Kirkland residents will see some new signs encouraging elbow bumps or waves.

“We all need to adjust to this as the new normal,” Triplett said. “We may be seeing the end of the handshake.”

But others said the spread of coronavirus, like the flu, is inevitable. A school nurse said it will be difficult to stop small children from coughing on one another. At City Hall, some people touched one another or shook hands.

At Northshore Community Church, parishioners couldn’t stop themselves from hugging a man who recently returned after brain surgery.

As King County Sheriff’s Deputy David Easterly supervised traffic in the church’s parking lot, he said he felt lucky to be in a country where the response to the disease has been swift and transparent. He lives near the Mill Creek area, where a high school student fell ill last week, but he said the virus felt “well-contained so far.

“I don’t go around licking doorknobs and such,” he said with a laugh. “I’m not really worried.”