A waitress in Washington on what it's like to live in the town where COVID-19 was first confirmed in the U.S.

Coronavirus Came to My Town; What I Wish I Had Known Before
Credit: Getty Images

Bothell, Washington is a tiny town 16 miles north of Seattle; I live here and work as a waitress at a busy family restaurant. This probably doesn’t mean much to you, except just a few days ago, the Bothell area became the location of the first confirmed U.S. cases of coronavirus. The first affected person, confirmed on February 28, was a teen in the town just north of Bothell. Later that day, another case was confirmed one town to our south. By Saturday, that person had died from the virus, which claimed another life at the same hospital on Sunday. By Tuesday morning, six people had died of COVID-19 in the United States — all in Washington.

Cases have also now been confirmed in Florida, Rhode Island, New York, and Georgia (the latest added on Monday). As panic rises about where it’ll appear next, or what anyone should be doing to prepare, it’s important to learn from the places it’s been.

Most Americans have seen and know little about the deadly disease, except for what has been shared on social media, especially from Wuhan, China, where it is thought to have originated. We know that Wuhan residents have been on lockdown since January 23. We have seen racism against Asian-American people rise, as misplaced paranoia about a pandemic leaves some pointing fingers. We have perhaps remained naive to what this illness means, what it is like, and what we should have been doing to prepare for its inevitable arrival on our shores.

I first saw the news posted in our restaurant’s private Facebook group on Friday. Since I had to work early the next morning, I decided I’d seek out some hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes the next day, and headed to bed.

By morning, it was clear that panic had set in, not just in our tiny town, but across the entire region. People lined up for hours at Costco before the store even opened. When it did, the store was quickly wiped clean of hand sanitizers and face masks. I arrived at the shopping center at 8 a.m to find not a single store with any hand sanitizer; hand soaps were pretty much gone. In this easygoing Northwestern town, neighbors are usually polite, slow, and forgiving. On Saturday, it was difficult to find a parking spot; people cut each other off racing for a space: Everyone seemed frantic to get in, to try to grab that last bottle of Purell for themselves.

Since the public response was happening quicker than any official guidance on how to prepare (on Friday, the same day as the first confirmed U.S. diagnosis, President Trump announced he thought the illness was a hoax, and we shouldn’t worry), my restaurant’s management took initiative to swap all of our cleansers (which only remove dirt) to sanitizers (which can actually remove bacteria or lingering viruses). The sense from inside the building was that chain businesses were taking guidance from their corporate headquarters, but mom-and-pop shops and individuals were left to their own defenses to figure out how to handle the scare (hence the run on Costco’s Purell section). Since then, the CDC has released guidelines on how to prevent the spread of the virus, including proper handwashing procedures and avoiding close contact with those who are ill.

It’s important to understand how the coronavirus spreads. The CDC explains it can be spread person-to-person by standing close to each other, or by a cough or sneeze. As the CDC writes, “These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs.” It can also be spread by “touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose.” The CDC believes COVID-19 (which is the disease caused by the coronavirus, as the AP explains) is spreading person-to-person more than by germs being left on objects, but it is also using the term “community spread” to define when it’s unclear how a person contracted the virus.

The teen who became ill in Bothell was likely infected due to community spread. And while the CDC reports “unprecedented, aggressive efforts have been taken to contain the spread and mitigate the impact of this virus,” any community spread means the exact passage of the illness from one person to another isn’t entirely traceable, or preventable. As of March 3, 2020, The New York Times reports there are 90,000 cases of COVID-19 and more than 3,000 deaths globally.

For Bothell residents now afraid of catching coronavirus, there is seemingly little that can be done. Even Amazon is sold out of some hand sanitizer (such as individual bottles from brands like Purell, Germ-X, or Mrs. Meyers). Here in town, a local Walgreens has been sold out, but a representative said they expect to have more in stock later this week. After striking out at Costco and the drug store, I went to a nearby medical clinic and simply asked for a few face masks and sample bottles of hand sanitizer — not exactly a strategy we can all put into place. Meanwhile, you can still find Lysol disinfecting wipes, or hospital-grade hand sanitizers and wipes in bulk on Amazon, if you can wait a day or two for shipping (or more if you’re not a Prime member), and afford to pay for the larger order. But all this stocking up, while it can make you feel reassured in the immediate, isn’t following any official guidance, which still says handwashing, and maintaining a safe distance from anyone who’s coughing or sneezing, is our best course of action.

I had a doctor’s appointment Monday, which was pre-scheduled and unrelated to the scare, and for the first time in a year of bi-weekly visits I had to sanitize my hands upon entering the clinic, then again before entering my doctor’s office. He sat behind his desk wearing a mask, though not sick himself. Driving home, traffic was eerily light, but fast; I had to drive about 80 miles per hour on the highway to keep up. When I stopped for an afternoon latte, my barista was a bit frantic herself. The vibe around town is that we all just wish to be done with work or errands and get home — away from other people — as fast as possible. It turns out that this slightly hermit-like instinct is the right idea.

Coronavirus Came to My Town; What I Wish I Had Known Before
Credit: World Health Organization

A local pharmacist, who requested not to be named, told me only those who are sick should wear face masks to prevent spreading the virus by coughing and sneezing. The World Health Organization adds that anyone caring for an infected person can also wear a mask to protect themselves, but they aren’t recommended as a precaution for everyone. The WHO, again, recommends handwashing, and staying at least three feet away from anyone who’s coughing or sneezing in public. Because I’m exposed to so many people at work, I have even considered leaving my job. It feels as if protecting ourselves and others is an individual endeavor at this point — we're each doing what we can, and what we can afford.

While the teenager here in Washington was the first documented U.S. case of the coronavirus, The Washington Post reports that a computation biologist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle found nearly identical virus samples between that teenager and from a person who was possibly infected in January and had traveled to this area from China. This could mean the disease had already been spreading here for over a month and, with dozens of cases diagnosed across the country in the last 24 hours, that it has been spreading nationally for that long as well.

After an initially slow dissemination of testing kits for coronavirus, the New York Times reported on Sunday that labs across the country would now be able to test for the disease that has been spreading. It's a few days later, and this has not been going well. (See this Seattle-area woman’s Twitter thread on her harrowing experience trying to get tested for symptoms that match COVID-19, for example.) NPR added that once more testing is underway, many more cases of the illness are expected to be confirmed.

As this disease quickly spreads, most local residents (including myself) are realizing we had a reactive rather than proactive response, and we all reacted too late. If I could go back in time I would absolutely have not been so ignorant to think “this could never happen to me.” (Nor wasted time tracking down masks when others who need them now can’t find any.) With the developing news that this virus is silently sneaking around the country, it seems obvious that playing bumper cars in the Costco parking lot, to race my neighbors for a lone bottle of disinfectant, hardly feels like an appropriate response.

The AP reported that following the death in Kirkland, WA (yes, this is the home of Costco, which makes the store’s shortage of products even more shocking), President Trump dialed back his claim that the virus was a “hoax,” but said there is “no reason to panic.” Sitting in my bedroom in Bothell, drinking my third glass of orange juice in the morning (telling myself a vitamin C overload can’t hurt) I find it hard to agree. Whether you’re in Seattle, Savannah or anywhere between, take whatever steps you can to protect yourself and those around you. That might mean waiting in line in a store to get hand soap; or it could look like staying home and using what you have.

If possible, try to get ahead of the panic and skip right to the neighbor-supporting-neighbor phase. Now in Bothell and the surrounding area, there is still fear, but also an overarching friendliness and desire to help others. When pharmacists are calm, baristas chatty, and people friendly in the grocery store line, it helps us forget, if just for just a moment, that something so fearsome has descended on our town. In the Seattle area, that means we’re still sipping our coffees, complaining about the rain, and hoping for the best as our friends to the east figure out how they’ll respond if the virus comes to their city next. At the restaurant, we're wiping down every surface with extra attention, to make a safe space for our community to come and eat if they choose to. And all of us, refreshing Amazon to find more hand soap and sanitizer, are riding this out together.