ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Tomorrow marks one year since the first case of the coronavirus was confirmed in the U.S. just outside Seattle. In the 12 months since, more than 400,000 Americans have died of COVID-19. Will Stone reports on how the public health system responded in those early days.
WILL STONE, BYLINE: Before lockdowns, quarantine and face masks, there was a man in his 30s from Snohomish County, Wash., who walked off a plane after a flight back to the U.S. from Wuhan, China. It was January 15. He took a bus from the airport to his home north of Seattle. The next day, he fell ill. And soon, Washington Governor Jay Inslee notified the entire country of the cause.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
JAY INSLEE: On January 20, samples were confirmed by the CDC in Atlanta that, in fact, he carried the novel coronavirus.
STONE: Standing next to Inslee at the very first press conference, Washington Secretary of Health John Wiesman.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
JOHN WIESMAN: Thank you, Governor Inslee. Hello. And thank you, everyone...
STONE: The term COVID-19 did not even exist yet.
WIESMAN: The first thing that went through my mind was, dang it, really? We get to go first, huh?
STONE: Suddenly, Wiesman was overseeing the first public health response to a new, poorly understood pathogen.
WIESMAN: We had many more unknowns than we had knowns.
STONE: Who was actually at risk of having caught the virus? Was the patient contagious before he had symptoms?
WIESMAN: You know, we can't wait weeks to figure that out or we can't wait for months to have more data. So we had to make decisions out of the gate.
STONE: Another one was about the patient himself, who has never been identified publicly. He wasn't that sick, but Wiesman had to make the call. Should he be hospitalized? If so, who pays?
WIESMAN: So I made the decision, you know, look, we're not going to let that get in the way.
STONE: Meanwhile, there was a room full of people at the Snohomish Health District furiously working the phones, doing contact tracing. Carrie Parker led the effort.
CARRIE PARKER: This one was kind of like doing something really familiar to you, but doing it blindfolded.
STONE: The patient had gone to a restaurant, a doctor's office. Soon, the circle of possible contacts had expanded to over 60 people.
PARKER: There's extreme panic and fear in the community. And I think that it was even more challenging because people want to know things that you don't know yet.
STONE: But there was only one case. And the county had a full team, plus the state and the CDC all there to help.
PARKER: If you're going to err, you're going to err on the side of caution until you know more. The contact tracing on that case was as meticulous as it gets.
STONE: By early February, the patient was out of the hospital. None of his contacts tested positive. Travelers from abroad were being screened at airports. So Parker says, it seemed like maybe that was it.
PARKER: That window was a honeymoon period that was well-deserved because that case was managed beautifully.
STONE: That thought crossed Washington Health Secretary John Wiesman's mind, too.
WIESMAN: So there was a point in time where I'm like, oh, my gosh, did we actually managed to escape a larger outbreak?
STONE: It was a short-lived moment of relief.
WIESMAN: And then, of course, we learned no, actually, we didn't escape. There was more out there, more than, you know, anybody knew at the time.
STONE: A few weeks later, a second then a third coronavirus case were discovered outside Seattle, these with no connection to the first patient or China. Soon, something became very clear to Wiesman, who's recently left his post as secretary of health. All that work on that very first patient - hundreds of hours and dozens of people - there was no way to keep that up with each new case.
WIESMAN: And indeed, the system broke down very early.
STONE: And that wasn't just true of Washington state. Over the last year, the coronavirus has overwhelmed every state's public health infrastructure.
For NPR News, I'm Will Stone in Seattle.
(SOUNDBITE OF SOUTHWICK'S "LYING IN THE DARKNESS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.