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Life Care Center call logs show early clues to deadly COVID-19 cluster

The call logs show what the nursing home faced before coronavirus was confirmed. But news from California this week changes what we know about the U.S. outbreak.

KIRKLAND, Wash. — In late February, a staff member at Life Care Center in Kirkland made a phone call to county public health officials, describing an unusual pattern.

“We’re having a number of respiratory symptoms,” the caller said. “We did test them and they are all negative for flu, and we did send a lab, a nasal swab lab, that was also negative for flu.”

It was just before the nursing home was thrust into the national spotlight as the first identified cluster of COVID-19 in the United States.

Washington state seemed to be first center of the viral outbreak in the United States, following the growing number of cases starting from the first positive case in late January. However, news this week from California may shed new light on the spread of coronavirus throughout the United States.

Early clues 

On the call from Life Care Center in Kirkland, the staff member left a phone message with Seattle-King County Public Health asking for advice on how to deal with patients who appeared to have flu-like symptoms but were unconfirmed by flu tests.

The caller also said staff members were falling ill.

The 55-second phone message and call log came to the KING 5 investigators through a public disclosure request. Other requests remain to be fulfilled.

The log also says the center had closed its dining area, was disinfecting, stopped taking additional patients and said one patient had been moved to the hospital. 

That same week as that phone call, two residents died of illnesses later confirmed to be COVID-19. Later, other residents were identified as early cases of coronavirus, though many of them recovered.

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New information challenges assumptions

However, now what was thought to be the first death in Washington on Feb. 26 now appears to be the nation’s third, coming not just days, but weeks later than two other deaths in California.

Santa Clara County in California on Wednesday announced that two people who died at their homes on Feb. 6 and Feb. 17 tested positive for the virus.

Feb. 6 was more than three weeks before the first identified fatality in Washington. A third Santa Clara County death occurred on March 9.

The findings continue to challenge our assumptions held about the virus, and the news is not the only evidence that COVID-19 had been here longer than first thought, but likely is also more widespread than previously known.

On Monday, Los Angeles County Public Health, along with the University of Southern California found that the presence of COVID exposure is much wider in society than confirmed COVID-19 testing. The published results are from the first round of an ongoing study examining antibodies, which are present in a person's system after they have recovered from a disease.

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“[T]he research team estimates that approximately 4.1% of the county’s adult population has antibody to the virus,” said Los Angeles County's news release.

“Adjusting this estimate for statistical margin of error implies about 2.8% to 5.6% of the county’s adult population has antibody to the virus – which translates to approximately 221,000 to 442,000 adults in the county who have had the infection. That estimate is 28 to 55 times higher than the 7,994 confirmed cases of COVID-19 reported to the county by the time of the study in early April.”

The number of COVID-19 deaths in Los Angeles County is more than 600. But the study also says if a lot more people are thought to have had the disease, that would mean the fatality rate relative to the number of infections is lower than previously believed. That study continues.

VIEW | CORONAVIRUS COVERAGE ON KING 5