Covering Coronavirus: A Tale of Two Washingtons


MILES O’BRIEN: So let's go to early March now and this right around the time you declared a state of emergency. And it was also right around the time that the President called you a snake. At that point, did you get the sense that you as a governor and the state of Washington were sort of on their own and the federal cavalry was not coming?


GOV. JAY INSLEE: Yes, but we didn't ever depend on that leadership coming out of the White House. So it's not something that we were surprised by. We always knew that we would have to lead the charge given the president's reluctance to really exercise leadership on this.


RANEY ARONSON: That's Washington Governor Jay Inslee, speaking with reporter and FRONTLINE correspondent Miles O'Brien.


INSLEE: It was not a shock. It was extremely disappointing and disheartening, downplaying what was an emerging problem that could only be explained by someone who had their eye on the Dow Jones rather than an eye on the epidemiological curve.


ARONSON: Miles has been reporting from Seattle, where the first known case of COVID-19 was identified in the U.S. and he's been following the ongoing tensions between the governor and the president over the response to the outbreak.


O’BRIEN: So you know, you kind of go down the list and almost everything that Inslee sees as important, Trump sees it the other way. And this goes for other governors as well.


ARONSON: I’m Raney Aronson, executive producer of FRONTLINE, and this is the FRONTLINE Dispatch.


FUNDER: The FRONTLINE Dispatch is made possible by the Abrams Foundation, committed to excellence in journalism, and by the WGBH Catalyst Fund.


ARONSON: Miles great to get you back on the phone with us again.


O’BRIEN: It's a pleasure, Raney.


ARONSON: So, tell me what day is this in Seattle for you? Have you counted?


O’BRIEN: I've been here a long time. I landed here March 16 so I'd have to do some math. Let's see, I've done four loads of laundry. 


ARONSON: Alright, that’s a good sign.


O’BRIEN: And I know the hotel staff really well. And they know me well and we're, I'm among about probably, I don't know, six or eight people in the hotel. So it's been kind of surreal.


ARONSON: Is the hotel bar open? Is there anything open?


O’BRIEN: No, nothing. There’s a Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse which is open for takeout, so if you want a forty-dollar Caesar salad, you’re all set. So look for that on the expense report, ok?


ARONSON: So we decided to keep you in Seattle — we all decided it was a good thing to have you stay put there. 


O’BRIEN: I remember it so vividly. I was literally getting up to go to the plane and you called me, you said, ‘Don't leave.’


ARONSON: What went through your mind? What were you thinking? 


O’BRIEN: I was actually reluctantly headed to the airport thinking it was the wrong thing to do. You know, every instinct as a journalist that I have was like, “stay here.” It was the right call. 


ARONSON: Yeah, the story is in Seattle and looking at how Washington has really responded to this crisis in such a different way than Washington, D.C., I know you spoke to the governor, and it took a while to get the governor to talk to you. So why don't we start there, tell me about how that conversation was, and what did he say to you?


O’BRIEN: When I finally got to talk to him, it was very interesting, and he had some pretty strong words for the other Washington.


INSLEE: If I could suggest the fundamental problem here is I remember hearing the president saying that he didn't think that he wanted to be a shipping clerk. And frankly, the shipping clerks, we call them the quartermaster corps in the military, that's how you win wars.


O’BRIEN: Inslee said, you know, ‘The reason the U.S. won World War II is we had good quartermasters, we had supply people.’


INSLEE: That's how we got the D-Day and the Normandy invasion to be successful is because we had a very good quartermaster corps, we did have a tremendous logistics capability. And this is not a diminished role, it is that it should be an exalted role right now. And I know governors are trying to play that role as best we can across the country. We're doing things together as much as we can, but we could use some presidential help.


O’BRIEN: There's this sense here talking to the mayor, the county executive and the governor, that they've been sort of left to their own devices, you know, local, state, county governments, really put in the position of having to come up with the resources and the way to fight what is after all a global threat.


ARONSON: One thing I was really struck by is Seattle mayor, Jennifer Durkan, and she called it a real hunger games scenario. What does Inslee say about the federal response at that time?


O’BRIEN: Well, you know, it's you have this whole really sad scenario, frankly, of, you know, mayors, governors, county executives, you pick the level of government you like, trying to get resources to fight this problem and literally getting into bidding wars with each other. And so I asked Governor Inslee about that. 


O’BRIEN: I've heard Mayor Durkan here refer to it as the Hunger Games in the sense that you all end up bidding against each other for scarce resources. How real is that?


INSLEE: Well, it's very real. You know, we are searching the world for every potential warehouse that have any of this personal protective equipment. That has been a constant struggle and we are bidding against each other. And I'm sure that the suppliers are having a field day, bidding the price up while states are bidding against one another, it would be much more efficient economically and otherwise, if the federal government was playing a more vigorous role in that regard. 


ARONSON: Governor Inslee, of course, he was one of the first to respond, as you mentioned, and, you know, has a very different response than President Trump at the time. Talk to me a little bit about that moment when he moved forward and what Trump's response was.


O’BRIEN: Well, he got out in front of it, and he reminded me of the surgeon general about a week ago likening this to Pearl Harbor historically. 


ARONSON: Oh, interesting. 


O’BRIEN: He said, ‘Imagine if on December 8, 1941, Franklin Roosevelt addressed the nation and said,’


INSLEE: Good luck, Connecticut, building those battleships…


O’BRIEN: ‘And California, why don't you take care of the airplanes and let me know how it goes.’


INSLEE: We'll be right behind you. No, the federal government has unmatched capability of mobilizing the largest manufacturing base in the world that still remains the case today, and we could very much use him to do that.


ARONSON: Miles, specific to Governor Inslee and Trump, can you describe the backdrop to their relationship?


O’BRIEN: Well, I'm not sure what went on behind closed doors, but Inslee is a Democrat governor and a former presidential candidate and right around the time that he announced a state of emergency here, he sent out a tweet where he asked the the Trump administration to look at the data and the science before making decisions. Within a couple of days, President Trump was at the C.D.C. in Atlanta, and he called the governor a snake and said he couldn't be trusted. 


INSLEE: It was not a shock. It was extremely disappointing and disheartening, and has made our jobs of Republican governors and Democratic governors much harder to get the public to understand this. But we have been vigorous, both Republicans and Democratic governors leading our communities to some success. So there is good work going on in the states and we've seen to it to make sure that that's the case and have sort of ignored some of the background noise out of the White House.


O’BRIEN: So there's been this kind of war of words between the two of them. But ultimately, I guess it does reflect this feeling in the states that they are not just on their own, but there's almost what should be a partnership with the federal government is like this hostile relationship.


ARONSON: You know, you and I have talked a lot about this really being such a story of two Washingtons right, so Washington State obviously and Washington, D.C. What is the actual impact of these two, you know, the state and the federal government butting heads since the start?


O’BRIEN: Well, you know, I think the thing, the real issue is this idea that once again, I'm showing my history major side here. But if you go back to World War II, in 1950, after the war, a law was passed, which allows the president to have the authority to turn the industrial might of this nation on a dime to answer a threat, the Defense Production Act, and President Trump has been reluctant to use it in its full force. And at this point, Inslee believes, and many people who look at this closely, say we'll never get back to work until we have a mass testing capability and the mass testing capability requires U.S. industry to turn on a dime just as I described.


INSLEE: This is the number one challenge for the United States right now is we need a huge ramp up of our testing capacity, even greater than was needed early in the outbreak. And the reason is, is that as we want to rebuild our economy and come out of this, we have to have additional testing so that, you know, every time a child gets sick, we don't have to close down a whole school, and if people come back to work so we can test them to make sure that they are safe. And that's why we are intentional of building our own testing capability in our state, but really need more leadership out of the White House, to use the Defense Production Act and other measures to build up the industrial capacity to provide the test kits. We need the president to help ignite a national mobilization of the manufacturing base of the United States, that is absolutely imperative so that we can restart our economy. 


O’BRIEN: So you know, you kind of go down the list and almost everything that Inslee sees as important, Trump sees it the other way. And this goes for other governors as well.


ARONSON: Your access in Seattle and Washington in general has been so phenomenal. And the other day, you know, you were just on the phone with us telling us really excited about this incredible interview you just had with a doctor. He’s the medical director of infection control at Evergreen Hospital. I was hoping you could tell me about that interview and what you found out about him. 


O’BRIEN: Well, this guy, he just kind of blew my doors off. You know he was just such an unassuming guy. His name is Francis Riedo. And he’s — Evergreen Hospital is kind of a small community regional hospital, happened to be the place because of proximity, where residents of the Life Care Assisted Living nursing home were taken when they were having great respiratory distress toward the end of February. 


NEWS REEL: ...Life Care Center, a long-term care and nursing facility east of Kirkland, that is the hardest-hit facility...where the first known U.S. cluster of COVID-19 deaths and infections occurred...


O’BRIEN: And it was this mystery and no one was connecting the dots to coronavirus. So, Frank Riedo who is, you know, trained at Hopkins, in the Epidemic Intelligence Service at the C.D.C., a researcher, really, you know, total cred. So Riedo, being a former C.D.C. guy is like, ‘Oh, I've got to go test some people right now.’


RIEDO: I went to the critical care unit, and we settled on two individuals, and we tested them the following morning.


O’BRIEN: He gets the test back 24 hours later, and they're both positive for coronavirus. And he's like, ‘Oh, boy.’


ARONSON: Wait, wait. So two out of two are positive?


O’BRIEN: Two out of two randomly selected just happened to be in the ICU and sick. 


ARONSON: That's unusual, right? 


O’BRIEN: Extremely unusual. 


O’BRIEN: You get two positives. What goes through your mind?


RIEDO: My initial honest response was skepticism.


ARONSON: Is he thinking maybe the test is faulty? Like there's got to be an anomaly here?


O’BRIEN: The first thing he did when he got those two initial positives, which never happens, he called his epidemiologist at the state, a colleague of his and he said, ‘You know, I think this test is no good.’


RIEDO: The odds of both tests in two randomly selected individuals being positive with no history of travel, no history of exposure to anybody was fairly astronomical. 


O’BRIEN: And she said yes, because they were testing still travelers coming in, at the airport. And she said there were quite a few negatives and the test is good. And he said, ‘Oh, boy, we need to test more right away.’ Because this is one of those like moments of the movie when you have this dawning realization that something really bad is happening right around you and you didn't know it, you know.


RIEDO: We made a quick decision to test nine additional people that night and sent those in the following day. 


O’BRIEN: He tests nine more people the next day, immediately, gets those tests back.


RIEDO: Eight of those nine were positive. 


O’BRIEN: Eight of them —  positive for coronavirus, right. 


RIEDO: Right. Wow. 


O’BRIEN: Right. So now all of a sudden he's like, ‘Holy cow, it's everywhere.’


ARONSON: I mean, that’s just an incredible moment for a doctor to realize this. What’s his next move?


O’BRIEN: His first move was to tell his staff. He immediately sent nurses who were skilled in the operating room into the emergency room, pulled out as much gear as they could find and cordoned off a portion of the emergency room to make it the COVID-19 section with requirements for full personal protective gear so that his staff would not be further exposed.

You know, within a few days, they got a call from Life Care saying, ‘We have eight patients who need hospitalization.’ 


RIEDO: They continued to flow out of that facility.


O’BRIEN: Eight at once. Eight. 


ARONSON: So eight more patients.


O’BRIEN: Oh yeah, they just kept coming in.


O’BRIEN: So it was much more widespread anybody guessed at that point?


RIEDO: At that point, it was clear that there were multiple chains of transmission going on in the community that were independent of the chain or the cluster that was associated with Life Care Center. And it became evident in very short order that it wasn’t just Life Care. There were other nursing homes, long-term care facilities, skilled nursing facilities that also had individuals.  


ARONSON: What does he do after he alerts his staff? Because I mean it’s a big moment for this doctor, what does he do?


O’BRIEN: One of the first things he did, he called up the engineers in the HVAC Department at the hospital and it’s very important that you have what’s called negative flow rooms for people who have infectious diseases. And basically, what that means is that the air goes outward from the room, not back into the core of the hospital.


RIEDO: So, if a patient is in their room and they’re coughing, producing a lot of aerosols, that goes out.


O’BRIEN: To reduce the spread.


RIEDO: Typically, it’s reserved for individuals with tuberculosis or measles.


O’BRIEN: You know, they did a big addition to the hospital and he was instrumental in ensuring that the rooms were built with this negative airflow pressure. But they still didn’t have enough ICU rooms to meet the demand because the ICU unit was built in the ‘70s and it wasn’t built with that in mind. So the HVAC guys, the engineers kind of figured out how to redo the duct work to make it possible for these rooms to be converted to negative air flow.


RIEDO: This was much to my surprise, I thought I knew most things about this hospital but it turned out that the engineers here, who again are unsung heroes in thi s process, could turn the entire critical care unit, which was built in 1976, into a negative flow unit. So we had instantly 20 beds that now could be isolated and contained with some engineering modifications of airflow. It was, again, one of those, I mean we planned for it a little bit, but we didn’t plan for 50.


O’BRIEN: And so this is not one of those things you hear a lot about but these are literally some of the unsung heroes of this are these guys who worked around the clock trying to change the duct work essentially, the way the air flows in the hospital, so people could work there safely and tend to these patients…


O’BRIEN: Was there any spread to your staff?


RIEDO: There have been. We have identified now 31 health care workers that have developed COVID-19. Some of those, we clearly have identified as community acquisition, but there are some that have acquired it in-house.


O’BRIEN: Everybody’s okay?


RIEDO: Everybody is okay. We have had some providers who have been hospitalized and fortunately everybody has done well.


ARONSON: That’s amazing. Is this when Governor Inslee is thinking, ‘Okay, we've got to move fast’?


O’BRIEN: It's really interesting because he and some of the people in his administration, when they had patient number one, felt they needed to take, you know, more drastic action because everybody surmised that it was in the community, it had to be, but given the travel patterns, given the incubation period, given the way it spreads. But as he pointed out, you can't get too far ahead of your constituency.

INSLEE: You're aiming for a sweet spot where you are ahead of, maybe the broad public in the sense that you have an understanding of the epidemiology of these curves, but not so far ahead that you lose contact. It's sort of like bike racing. You know, the leader never wants to get so far ahead that the pelotons, you lose touch with them. 


O’BRIEN: And he said, ‘I couldn't get too far ahead of the peloton in this case.’ But the truth is the Life Care event because it was so dramatic and got so much attention globally, gave him the leverage to go to his constituency and tell them it's time to stay home, it's time to social distance. And he did much of that much of that happened almost spontaneously. Businesses did it without any proclamations or rules or laws. It just happened because people saw it and they got scared.


ARONSON: So Miles, you've been in Seattle for a month now, we're starting to see some of the fruits of people sheltering in, right? So what does the governor think now?


O’BRIEN: Well, he's concerned. He says, ‘This is the most perilous moment.’ He said, the day I spoke with him, April 10, it was a beautiful sunny day and the tulips were blooming and in Seattle after a long, rainy winter it's nice to get outside, right? And he said, ‘This day scares me because people are inside and they want to get outside.’ 


INSLEE: There has been a reduction of the curve fairly dramatically. But we are not totally confident we're at the peak of our losses today and the most dangerous element in my state today is the virus of complacency, because we have to be just as diligent for the next several weeks as we were the last several weeks. Somebody asked me what has been the hardest day so far, and I would say it's today. Because today we all, all leaders have the biggest challenge to make sure people understand that as the sun comes up and the daffodils come out, we've got to double our efforts. Because you have you can't have as many fatalities as the curve comes down as when the curve was going up, and if you relax too soon, the curve just can rebound and start right back up again.


O’BRIEN: And that's a real concern. But you know, I think, on the flip side of that is, you know, people are also pretty darn scared I think. They're still walking around with masks and the experiences that they've dealt with here, whether it's the Life Care experience initially, or just the fact that now pretty much everybody knows somebody who's had it at some degree of severity, that may keep people in place for a while. And until there's testing to know who's had it, got it, is immune and not, how are we going to know? Officially, he's got May 4 on the books as the date he hopes to, you know, start easing some of the shelter in place rules. But my guess is Inslee is going to extend that time because that's what the smart people right in his backyard are telling him.


ARONSON: So you just have a few days left before your film airs and is released into the world. 


O’BRIEN: Yes, I did know that by the way. The gallows in the morning focus the mind.


ARONSON: I mean, how is it going for you? I mean, I know for me, it's tough. There's three edit rooms, a couple of producers between us, and we're all working remotely creatively. You know, I'd love to be in a room with the producer, sort of you know, banging our heads together here on a crash, how's it going for you out there?


O’BRIEN: It's really, it's strange being in my little hotel room kind of in my little own personal isolation, trying to manage a project like this with all the moving parts and the tight deadline. It's not, you know, I'm like you I'm kind of old school guy, I kind of like being in the edit room. And so I don't know, you know, this new world order we have or we're all on, you know, tele, you know, Zooms or whatever we are. We kind of miss something there. You know, you never know what the film might be, how it would be different otherwise, we're doing the best we can. And I'm pretty excited about what we have. And but you know, I'll be honest with you, I wouldn't mind sitting down and banging out a script with you right across the conference room there in Boston.


RA: I think this next moment feels a little edited -- can you see what I really said?


ARONSON: Miles, we've got days to go. You and I need to get back to work.


O’BRIEN: We do. 


ARONSON: I mean, I'm talking to you. I could talk to you all day. But I'm gonna say goodbye now, get back to the script with you and thanks for joining me on The Dispatch. 


O’BRIEN: You are welcome Raney. 


ARONSON: Miles’ reporting out of Seattle will be featured on an upcoming FRONTLINE special, ‘Coronavirus Pandemic’ on PBS and online April 21. You can read more stories from FRONTLINE’s coverage of the coronavirus pandemic, including transcripts of Miles O’Brien’s interviews from this episode online at FRONTLINE dot org.


This podcast was produced by Max Green and James Edwards. 


Our production assistant is Lucie Sullivan.


Katherine Griwert is our editorial coordinating producer. 


Pam Johnston is FRONTLINE’s senior director of strategy and audience.


Lauren Ezell is senior story editor. 


Sarah Childress is our senior editor. 


Frank Koughan is senior producer. 


Andrew Metz is our managing editor.


I’m Raney Aronson, executive producer of FRONTLINE. 


Music by Stellwagen Symphonette.


The FRONTLINE Dispatch is produced at WGBH and powered by PRX.

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