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It began with 'Patient Zero' one long year ago

The Daily Herald - 1/19/2021

On Jan. 21, 2020, it was announced to the world that the United States had its first case of a new mysterious virus.

The night before, after a battery of lab tests, a 35-year-old Snohomish County resident was placed in deep isolation in an Everett hospital. He'd fallen ill four days after returning from Wuhan, China.

He became known as "Patient Zero" after a fateful test came back positive from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

At the time, images of people sick and dying in China and a few other countries seemed so distant. There were less than a thousand cases of the mystery illness reported, hardly a pandemic.

Little did we know just how much the coronavirus would change our lives and take so many. Over 2 million people have died worldwide, the majority due to community spread.

The year of fear and danger continues to cast its stubborn pall.

As of Friday, 445 people have died from COVID-19 in the county, where 100 currently are hospitalized with the virus.

The nation's first COVID patient was rolled in on a protective gurney at Providence Regional Medical Center Everett. It was the first time a special room set up during the Ebola crisis of 2014 to 2016 was used in a real-life scenario. A robot with a stethoscope and microphone allowed him to speak remotely with the doctor.

The man was discharged two weeks later, then quarantined at home for two more weeks.

"Patient Zero" remains largely anonymous beyond the medical community that treated him.

"We checked with him a few months ago and he was doing well," said Heather Thomas, a Snohomish Health District spokeswoman. "He still prefers not to be identified."

By Feb. 21, the virus was confirmed in few dozen people scattered across the country.

By mid-March, the world as we knew it stopped.

Schools, salons, restaurants and fitness centers closed. Parents became teachers. Grocery store clerks became front-line workers.

It has been a dire balancing act of trying to make a living and to protect loved ones. Touchless and six-feet apart was the mandate. No hugging grandkids allowed.

People died, particularly the elderly.

"Here we go," Sunrise View Convalescent Center and Retirement Villa administrator Diane Lopes remembers thinking on March 14 when two residents tested positive. "Here we go."

Statewide, of the nearly 4,000 fatalities, 91% have been those 60 and older.

Deaths and hospitalizations have come in waves. At times the curve would flatten, only to surge anew. A single-day record 4,254 Americans died on Tuesday alone. The U.S. death toll stands at more than 400,000.

Today, as the one-year mark of "Patient Zero" approaches, the Herald profiles the Sunrise administrator and four others at the forefront of giving or receiving treatment and care.

Providence Intensive Care Unit nurse Sara Gering has been there for the final moments of many COVID-19 patients, and a Marysville area woman who spent 25 days on a ventilator in March and April came close to being one of them.

"They are my heroes," Peggy Jahn, 62, said of the medical workers. "I am here because of them."

Providence emergency department medical director Dr. Ryan Keay describes the chaotic year and the steep learning curve on how best to treat patients.

"COVID doesn't play by the same rules as any other diseases we have dealt with," hospital respiratory therapist Darryl Keffer said.

Even with vaccinations underway, there is no letup in sight.

The virus has infected some 26,000 people in Snohomish County and 23.5 million in the U.S. since last January.

And at Providence, the census of COVID patients last week hovered between 65 and 70 with another 20 patients awaiting lab results.