Covering Coronavirus: Seattle, Washington


ARCHIVE: Never since WWII have we faced a situation like this where we both can be part of this battle, but must be part of this battle.  This is bigger than all of us and I am fully confident that Washingtonians will rise to this challenge to get back to a normal state of our life as soon as humanly possible. But all of us have to recognize for the next several weeks normal is not in our game plan.

ARONSON: This is the Frontline Dispatch. I’m Raney Aronson, executive producer of Frontline. We are living in an unprecedented time.

 ARCHIVE: Stark headlines tell our top story again tonight… 

...shutting down bars and wineries and asking those 65 and older to self-isolate… 

...Brutal day on Wall Street the Dow sank nearly 3000 points…  

 ...a 30-day restriction on non-essential travel… 

 ...President Trump is closing the border with Canada.  And calling himself a wartime president…

 ARONSON: Our daily lives are changing with dramatic speed in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. There are so many questions, and right now, it’s difficult to know what will happen next.


O’BRIEN: The lessons that came out of here where it began, where it remains an epicenter of the disease, the lessons here are crucial.


ARONSON: That’s journalist and Frontline correspondent Miles O’Brien. He’s one of several journalists from the Frontline team currently on the ground reporting this story for us. In the coming days, weeks, and months, you’ll see reports from us on TV, online and on this podcast. Miles is currently reporting from Washington State, where the first COVID-19 patient was identified in the U.S. 



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



O’BRIEN: Ok I have speed here.  Do you want to slate it in anyway? Ok, alright. 


ARONSON: Great, ok. Miles you’re in Seattle.  Tell me about it. Give us a picture of what it looks like and feels like there.


O’BRIEN: You know it reminds me of when I covered Hurricane Katrina back in ‘05. I remember driving into New Orleans the day before Katrina hit and there’s absolutely bumper to bumper traffic of people going out of the city and we were alone on the road going in. And I'm thinking I've got to wonder about your career choices at that point right. Here we were on this empty plane arriving at this nearly empty airport going to the Hyatt Regency in Seattle which is the largest hotel in the Northwest and there were 12 rooms occupied, 3 of which were us. 


And so then you go down to Pike Place and you go to where they're normally tossing the fish and all that.  None of that is happening. This is the time of year where people would just be crowding that area from the original Starbucks to the push carts. None of that is happening now. It's kind of got that… you almost expect to see the tumbleweeds rolling through the streets. The uncertainty over the time frame just adds to the level of angst.  There's a strong sense of resiliency, some personal pride of the location, and how they feel like they are getting through it doing things on their own. Improvising ways to live life.  


But then you scratch beneath that surface and there's a healthy dose of fear. People have been kind of robbed of their sense of optimism and their sense of planning for the future and then you go one more layer down and you get into some anger.  There's a lot of people, without mentioning a lot of names frankly, there's not a lot of finger pointing but there is just a lot of anger and disappointment in the system which has led us to this point.  Could we have done better? That question comes up a lot.


ARONSON: So you went to Providence Hospital. I understand that’s where the first coronavirus patient was treated. Talk to me about just entering into that hospital. Take me there and your conversations with Dr. George Diaz.


O’BRIEN: Yeah, this is, it's really interesting just 2 or 3 weeks before patient number one became one of his, they had done an extensive, 40-person tabletop simulation of what to do if, when, and how to approach it. They went through every little step and one of the things they decided was we have to build a temporary, what they call a negative pressure wing. Which means, essentially, that the pressure on the outside is higher than the inside so when you open the door the air goes inward not outward. Fairly much common sense so that keeps whatever contagion on the inside in theory. 


So, they literally had to build something for patient number one when they knew he was coming in and they estimated in this simulation it would probably take 2 hours. In the real world it took them 2 hours. They literally built up makeshift walls and a system to keep that air flow in the proper direction. He said there was nothing that we had to improvise, we had it figured out. And I said you know it's hard to imagine a facility that would be more prepared for this.  He said, he was being humble about it, but the truth is there's no question that is the case. 


On top of that they had built a relatively new facility which was primarily designed just as a post-surgical wing. But when they built it, it was right around the time when it was immediately post-Ebola concern. And so, the decision was made at the time to make this normal wing also have this so-called negative pressure capability. So, what they did was once they realized we had patient number one, they knew there would be patient two, three, four and onward, they cleared out that wing and turned it into a COVID-19 wing. So they had a lot of infrastructure in place and a plan in place, which frankly, the hospital has been pretty much besieged by healthcare facilities all over the country wanting to know what the plan was and how to implement it because it's a great model for how to do it.


ARONSON: So, speaking of which, how are you keeping yourself safe? Talk a little bit about what you're doing out in the field right now. This is pretty unusual. You know the whole idea when we are doing journalism and trying to film something is to get as close, as intimate as possible so how are you doing it to keep yourself safe?


O’BRIEN: Well first of all we're trying to keep ourselves sane and try to remind ourselves constantly of what the statistical risks are. It's interesting, the director of photography I'm with was with me in the middle of the campfire in Paradise, California. We literally were surrounded by flames at one point, not a smart thing to do, but there it happened. He told me yesterday that he felt, he is more scared now than he was there. And I said ‘why do you say that?’ He said, ‘Because this is invisible, I don't where it is.’




O’BRIEN: ‘I knew where the fire was.’ And it reminded me a lot of covering, you know, I've been to Fukushima as you know a half dozen times or so inside the exclusion zone is very similar to the fears that people have about radiation. It's invisible and it can kill you. And that's what we've got, invisible and it can kill you.  And there's something psychologically pervasive about that, so we wash our hands a lot, really a lot. 


When I went into the hospital, they gave me a questionnaire about my potential exposures, they asked if I'd been in a plane in the past 14 days and for me that answer is always yes. And so, I had to wear a mask there on the presumption that I might be carrying the virus, not necessarily receiving it. You have to take each of these things one at a time if you start thinking about it, all of it at once it can be a bit overwhelming. 


ARONSON: No, that makes sense. And of course, you have to keep the people you’re talking to safe as well. So that's a whole other element that I can imagine is challenging.


O’BRIEN: Yeah I don't want to be a vector, right? The amount of time I'm on planes, for the amount of exposures that we have, doing what we do we certainly are not sheltering in place. I think the mission that we have justifies what we do as long as we take a prudent approach to it. I don't think I could get over the feeling that I somehow made someone sick as a result of this, so I have been very circumspect about watching my own symptoms if there are any. The other morning I woke up and I couldn't speak and I thought "whoa" that happens sometimes when you wake up and you're dehydrated and whatever, but I immediately went into panic mode and thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I'm going to be doing this film from this hotel in Seattle.’ Everybody's this way, right?


ARONSON: No, we're all like this now. Right, you wake up and you sneeze, you feel that way. So, no that's understandable. Talk to me a little bit about, you know you’re a science reporter. What is surprising you that you're seeing.  You read so much before you got there, you were prepared, but what is actually surprising you?


O’BRIEN: Well, I had a really interesting talk today with the state's top epidemiologist, Scott Lindquest, really interesting person. And I was asking him a couple of things, I said when the Corona Virus first became evident in China, surely you must've expected this tsunami was headed your way eventually, he said, ‘Of course.’ 


We immediately began planning and doing all kinds of simulations with hospital experts trying to come up with a plan they can pull off the shelf when it happened, not if it happened. And what was kind of interesting about it, he said, ‘We believe the reason that patient number one for the United States came here and was here is because we were the most attune to it.  We were the people who were the most ready to see it, to test for it.’ I hadn't thought about it in that direction.


ARONSON: That's really surprising, so he's saying essentially because we knew about it, we tested it for it, then, of course, we found out about it first.


O’BRIEN: Exactly and so my follow up question was, ‘Well do you think that there were other places that probably had their own patient one and might have had the first case if they were just looking?’ He said, ‘Of course.’ So, it's really interesting this is a place that I think stands in contrast to certainly what the ethos in Washington right now they have embraced science, they've put science at the center of their policy. They have let kind of the data drive the decisions. And the point is when science and facts dictate policy the reaction is better. People look at Seattle and say well they have much bigger problem there; well you could say they have a much bigger handle on a problem that might be bigger where you are.


I think the biggest insight I take away from his interview cause he must have said it five times, because I was very curious about the testing problems and why it's been so difficult to get testing up and running. And he said, "You know as much as we could have improved and been a little better on that, the real issue now is PPE, which is Personal Protection Equipment. It doesn't matter how many tests there are if you don't have masks, and these visors, and the garb and the full suit for the medical personnel to wear to give the test.’ 


So, he said, ‘We are absolutely at the end of the line on supplies.’ He said, ‘I am pleading for industry, for private sector to ramp up production,’ so that he can keep the testing going. It’s not so much about the tests it’s about the masks.


ARONSON: That is fascinating, so it's no longer the tests in that situation, but rather keeping our health care professionals safe.


O’BRIEN: Absolutely yeah. What's happening is in the absence of the private sector industry producing enough of these things, there are employees of the Providence Healthcare System who have volunteered their time, they have gone to craft stores kind of bought out materials and they’re gathering together sewing circle style to make the equipment for their colleagues so they can do their job safely. And just a little while ago I had the opportunity to see what they were doing and talk to them.




O’BRIEN: Alright so we are walking in. Hey there, how are you? Did a TV crew come in here?




O’BRIEN: Which way did they go?


HOSPITAL WORKER 1: They went through that door, but I don't.

O’BRIEN: They went that a-way? Ok. Thank you. Alright so we're inside the Holly Center here in Renton. Did you see a TV crew come by here by any chance? In there? We're here. Oh my gosh. So, I'm walking in this room, looks like a big meeting room or conference room. There's probably… one, two, three, four, five, six… probably 10 round tables. One, two, three… probably about a dozen people. And everybody has crafts. It looks like they bought out a Joanne's Craft store. 


Hi, What's your name?


KAREN: I'm Karen.


O’BRIEN: Hi Karen, I'm Miles O'Brien. and I'm doing a little podcast. How’s it going so far?


KAREN: So far, it's great. We're up to 250? How many?




KAREN: 252. We're trying to get to 1000 by tomorrow. And we're very excited to be chipping in.


O’BRIEN: 1000 by tomorrow. You guys are working hard.


KAREN: We're serious. Well we need to work hard because our caregivers that are taking care of patients with COVID are working a heck of a lot harder than we are.


O’BRIEN: Now you guys are all volunteers, but employees of the system is that it?


KAREN: Yes. I have two members from my team we're in the population health division, so we support all of our regions across the system. But today we are here doing this type of support.


O’BRIEN: So, you know this is deadly serious business right what you're doing, but in a sense are you having fun?


KAREN: We have a little bit of fun; we've had some tunes going. We've got snacks, so that's good. Yeah.


O’BRIEN: What's the long-range goal? How many masks do you, I mean do you have to keep delivering these things?


KAREN: We do. And we need to keep making them until our caregivers don't need them anymore until we have our supply chains restored and able to provide the protection that our caregivers need.


O’BRIEN: On the one hand it's really cool that you're doing this and on the other hand it's really sad that you need to do this right?


KAREN: It's so sad. So, this very week I was supposed to be in Guatemala working on a mission trip to construct and deliver wheelchairs to people from remote areas in Guatemala who don't have access to wheelchairs. So instead I'm in the United States building protective equipment for our caregivers against a pandemic. 


O’BRIEN: So...


KAREN: Just think about that.


O’BRIEN: Yeah, I'm pondering that for a moment. I think you've made your point.


KAREN: Yeah, I think so.


O’BRIEN: Go ahead and put a fine point on it. What are your thoughts on that?


KAREN: Well I think it’s just… it shows how interconnected things are in the world and we haven't been able to mobilize, as a country, the resources that people need in order to provide care in an emergency and that's kind of frustrating. And we're not alone, I mean we're doing this here for Providence St. Joseph Health, I know colleagues that I've been in contact with on the East Coast are trying to do this for other places in the country as well.


O’BRIEN: What a sign of the times, huh?


KAREN:  It's very true.


O’BRIEN: Alright. Thank you.


KAREN: You're very welcome.


O’BRIEN: And keep up the good work. You're doing good work here. All of you.




ARONSON: So, can you help me understand just looking at Washington as you've described, what are some of the lessons that the rest of the country can take away? From, essentially how they've managed the crisis so far.


O’BRIEN: Well I think you have to be innovative and be resilient.  We were with the Chief Financial Officer of the Providence Healthcare System and she was doing her morning calls, 7:30 call with her top people trying to figure out how to manage their way through it. Again, the big concern, not just the PPE, the protection equipment, but also the looming concern, which we've heard a little bit about is the ventilators. What do you do about ventilators? Her question to her team was, ‘How can we hack ventilators?’ 


So when I finally got my turn to talk to her after the call, I said, ‘What is this? It kind of reminds me of that scene in Apollo 13 when they're trying to get them back and they throw all the 8 pieces of gear they have up there and how can we make a carbon dioxide scrubber out of this? Right?’ And she said, ‘It's just like that.’


ARONSON: Interesting.


O’BRIEN: We're going in our basement; we're trying to figure this out. And I said, ‘Wait a minute…  How do you get FDA approval for a gadget like that?’ She said, ‘If you're dying, do you care if there's FDA approval?’ And I said, ‘No, I'd probably take you pumping a bellows into me. I don’t know. Yea, it’s… that's the kind of thinking that is going to get us through this, frankly, because we are on our heels, we don't have the equipment, we don't have the gear, and that level of resilience is so important. I think that's the number one lesson I think that we have to take away from this is that waiting on the federal government, that’s not going to necessarily work. Rising to the occasion individually is important. I mean we still need collective action, national action, global action, that's not to discount that, but waiting for it is, in her view, not an option.


ARONSON: Miles, tell me a little bit about why you feel why it's so important to be there on the ground right now?


O’BRIEN: I really do feel the lessons that have come out of here where it began, where it remains an epicenter of the disease, the lessons here are crucial. We really need to pay attention to what they've done and what they've learned here. The calls are coming in from all over the nation, from the health care system. They knew that this was likely to happen.  They made a plan, they executed the plan and now they're learning the plan works, but also how to modify it going forward. And so, I just think that is such an important story to tell right now.,


ARONSON: Miles, such a terrific conversation and I know it's been really hard to fit in even more conversations with us back in Boston, but we really appreciate it. Miles O'Brien thank you so much again for chatting with us today and we'll be talking throughout your time in Seattle and also when you come back to the East Coast.



O’BRIEN: You’re welcome Raney.



ARONSON: With our days now being consumed by rising numbers of cases, closings, and uncertainty, it can be easy to lose our bearings as things change so quickly. 


We’re going to bring you more dispatches like this one as the pandemic unfolds. 


This podcast was produced by Max Green and James Edwards, with help from Collyn Stephens.

Sarah Childress is our senior editor and Andrew Metz is our managing editor. The FRONTLINE Dispatch is produced at WGBH and powered by PRX. Stay tuned for more and our covering Coronavirus series. 




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