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State Officials, First Responders In Washington Take Coronavirus Precautions


Officials in some parts of Washington state are closing schools, telling sick people to stay home and urging everyone to avoid gatherings of more than 10 people. So what's it like for health care workers whose jobs bring them in close contact with everyone? Will Stone of KNKX in Seattle has been talking with health workers.

WILL STONE, BYLINE: I've talked with people you could say are on the frontlines of this situation. These are the paramedics, nurses, doctors and those who are running the local agencies that are spearheading this very big and challenging public health response. And there is concern among health care workers, mostly revolving around whether they have enough information to do their jobs safely and not end up possibly exposed themselves.

INSKEEP: Yeah. What is the basic situation they face?

STONE: Many of the serious cases and deaths are linked to a nursing home east of Seattle called Life Care Center. Those who've died are primarily in their 70s or older, and it's likely been here for longer than we realized. So just as an example, someone who died last week had been transferred from the same nursing home to a hospital, and that was actually before the first deaths here were reported.

The state public health agency has managed to improve the capacity to test, so people have a little more sense of what they're dealing with. I mean, understandably, people who are sick with flu-like symptoms want to know if they have the illness, and people who believe they may have been exposed also want to be tested. At the moment, that's just not feasible, given the capacity here.

I spoke to Tove Skaftun, who's the chief nursing officer for the Community Health Center of Snohomish County.

TOVE SKAFTUN: The patients that are coming in to be seen are fearful. They're anxious. They want reassurance that they're not going to get it, and that's not something that we can provide for them.

STONE: Skaftun says her clinic is now allowed to test anyone they suspect could have the illness, and they're getting lots of phone calls. But if they did that for everyone, they would quickly run out of supplies and kits.

INSKEEP: Yeah. Well, how does that affect first responders like EMTs or firefighters, say?

STONE: They are taking new precautions. There's additional screening when people call 911, and if they come to a call that sounds anything like coronavirus, they just need to assume it is and wear all that protective equipment we've been seeing - gowns, gloves, so on. A bunch of firefighters who responded to the nursing home are now in quarantine, and that's because they responded to calls that did not seem related to any respiratory illness in the days before we learned about the coronavirus outbreak there.

INSKEEP: Well, can the first responders not in quarantine still do what they need to do in the community?

STONE: At the moment, they're making it work. They have enough staffing. I spoke with Evan Hurley, who is with the Kirkland Fire and was not quarantined. He's still transporting patients this week back-and-forth from that nursing home and says it's taxing. The department has more than two dozen firefighters who are in isolation, and some actually are now showing flu-like symptoms.

EVAN HURLEY: You know, we've got a lot of husbands and wives at homes that are having to be either isolated within their own homes or I know of a few guys that are living in campers in their driveways and - including people with young kids. So there's a lot of stress.

STONE: Hurley says that, you know, the best they can do is just wear all the appropriate equipment and keep an eye out for anything that could be worrisome.

INSKEEP: Wow, hard job. Will Stone, thanks so much.

STONE: Thank you.

INSKEEP: He is with KNKX in Seattle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Will Stone is a former reporter at KUNR Public Radio.