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A Look Back At 1st Death From COVID-19 In The U.S.


In the coming days, the U.S. will reach a milestone that no one will celebrate - 200,000 deaths from COVID-19. Now, if you go back a little more than six months ago, 200,000 deaths ago, you'd get to Seattle and the man that at that time was thought to be the first death from coronavirus in the U.S. Health care reporter Will Stone covered that death. It was a man in his 50s who lived outside Seattle. Will is here to talk more about it.

Welcome to the program.


CORNISH: The date on that death was February 29, more than six months ago. By this point, people have passed in every single state. But back then, did it seem like it was a local story?

STONE: It wasn't necessarily local because, you know, very soon the entire country was watching the Seattle area, but it did really feel containable. Remember, Washington had the first U.S. case. That was in January. It was a resident traveling back from China. But he did survive. His contacts were tracked down. And everyone let out a sigh of relief. But one person who did not do that was Trevor Bedford. He's a viral scientist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center here in Seattle.

TREVOR BEDFORD: I thought that the cat was out of the bag and that we're going to have a pandemic and that there was kind of no stopping it at that point. And then it was kind of this growing horror, but people were really complacent.

STONE: And during that time, we now know that the virus was spreading silently in the Seattle area. But close to a month went by before we realized it, and that was announced February 28. And the very next day, we learned about the first death. We were also told that there was an outbreak at a nursing home in the suburb of Kirkland.

CORNISH: Right. That nursing home is called Life Care Center. At this point, what do we know about what happened there?

STONE: Lots of residents were getting sick, and soon some of them became the next few U.S. deaths. This was a very vulnerable population, so we had ambulances coming in and out all the time. Families were really distraught going there, trying to communicate through the window. That scene is sadly more familiar now, but at the time it was really strange and new. I reached out yesterday to a firefighter named Evan Hurley, who at the time was helping transport Life Care patients to the hospital. He said what he remembered was the night he showed up expecting to move just one patient.

EVAN HURLEY: And so I'm standing there looking at them and saying, hey, you guys, we can't handle three patients. And they look back at us and said, look; there's only three of us here, and there's 80 patients in this building. This is not a normal virus. This is not something to be trifled with.

CORNISH: And now in retrospect, that was an understatement - right? - this idea of it not to be trifled with. Was there a moment for you when the reality of this hit you?

STONE: There was. I distinctly remember it. There were these daily updates for reporters on the road outside the Life Care nursing home. And there was one day when I got there and realized about half of the reporters were wearing face masks, and that was completely new. I didn't have a mask. And then someone standing pretty close to me actually coughed, and some of us looked up, and I remember a lot of people sort of inching away from the cougher. So that was the moment where the mood shifted, and I did go home and get some masks.

CORNISH: We've been focused on Washington, but we know that the deaths have not been spread equally throughout the U.S. Can you give us a sense of kind of how this has moved?

STONE: That's right. The Northeast was just devastated in the spring. If you add up just three states - New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts - that's almost 60,000 deaths, which is more than a quarter of all the deaths. Other places that really suffered early on included Detroit, New Orleans. Then in the summer, the death toll really shifted West and especially to the Sunbelt, like California, Arizona, Texas, Florida. At the same time, the demographics began to shift as well. So younger people were driving the spread, and that did mean fewer hospitalizations and fewer deaths.

CORNISH: For people who study pandemics, how are they reflecting on this terrible milestone?

STONE: Yeah, I spoke with Janet Baseman. She's - I've been speaking her since the beginning. She's a professor of public health at the University of Washington. And I asked her again yesterday for her thoughts about hitting this 200,000 mark.

JANET BASEMAN: A lot of pain and suffering that we've been through in this country to get to a number like that. It's depressing. You know, I wish we could reverse the clock and do things differently. Over the months, you know, we've seen the pandemic turn out to be this - you know, the great revealer of these health disparities that are there all the time in our country.

STONE: And she's right. As the deaths have ramped up over these six, seven months, the deaths have disproportionately been happening among certain minority groups. Black Americans, Latino communities and Native American communities have all seen more than their share of both infections and deaths.

CORNISH: Health care reporter Will Stone.

Thank you so much.

STONE: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Will Stone
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