Empty or almost bare shelves in the toilet paper and towel aisle of Vashon Thriftway are seen on Monday night. (Kevin Opsahl/Staff Photo)

Empty or almost bare shelves in the toilet paper and towel aisle of Vashon Thriftway are seen on Monday night. (Kevin Opsahl/Staff Photo)

Coronavirus on islanders’ minds

Local groups strategize, businesses sell out or run low on products after King County virus deaths

With news over the weekend that the first coronavirus death in the United States occurred in King County, islanders are reacting with mixed emotions, while community groups and businesses are responding trying to keep people from getting infected.

VashonBePrepared, the island’s emergency response arm, the clinic run by Neighborcare Health and the Vashon Island School District are just a few examples of entities that have sent out messages to constituents on COVID-19. Numerous local social media groups have spread the word on the developing news.

Meanwhile, businesses, including the Vashon Pharmacy and Thiftway, reported selling out or running low on hand sanitizer and face masks. The shelves of canned chili, tomato sauce, rice, oatmeal and toilet paper were noticibly sparse on Monday evening at one of the island grocery stores.

In interviews with The Beachcomber, islanders expressed feelings ranging from no worry at all to fright that the coronavirus would hit Vashon-Maury Island’s shores.

“If someone with no known contact has already died, the virus is already here,” islander Diana Daniel wrote on the Vashonites Facebook page on Sunday.

She was referring to the first U.S. death of a coronavirus patient, who passed away on Feb. 29, at Evergreen Health Hospital in Kirkland. The man had “no history of travel or contact with a known COVID-19 case,” Public Health – Seattle & King County stated in a press release, leading officials to worry if community spread is responsible for this and future cases.

But the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 and deaths continued to rise over the weekend and into the following week. On Tuesday, just prior to The Beachcomber’s press deadline, Public Health – Seattle & King County had reported 21 confirmed cases, including eight deaths.

The developments seemed to worry islander Nancy Bachant, who told The Beachcomber on Facebook that after visiting local businesses recently, she wondered how many of them had cleaned credit card reading touch screens to prevent the spread of germs.

“I am older (76 years) and have recent health issues so need to be extra careful because it will probably kill me,” she wrote.

But islander Michaila Hopkins, who was at Thriftway on Monday morning, said she was not that worried about coronavirus.

“Everyone is freaking out like it’s Y2K,” she said. “It could spread, but it could disappear tomorrow like everything else.”

Signs and symptoms

COVID-19, first detected in Wuhan, China, was transmitted to the U.S. after a person who had recently returned from the country reported symptoms of the disease. But since then, Washington and other states have reported cases stemming from people who have not traveled internationally, leading health and government officials, including Gov. Jay Inslee, to declare a public health emergency.

Close to home, Jessica Wesch, an island physician with Neighborcare Health, said the clinic on Vashon has fielded a number of questions and concerns from residents who are curious about COVID-19.

The island could be at high risk for COVID-19, she said, because of its large elderly population, “snowbirds” who stay in warmer places for the winter, and those who are considering traveling internationally.

“I think it’s here in the U.S. more than we are aware and in the community of King County more than we are aware,” Wesch said. “I don’t know of any cases, at this point, on Vashon Island.”

To counter COVID-19, she recommended anyone feeling sick should stay home. Neighborcare’s website, which has a page dedicated to updates on COVID-19, recommends people who think they have symptoms of the disease call a nurse before coming to the clinic.

Wesch noted the challenge anyone has in determining whether they’re experiencing symptoms of the common cold or something more serious.

“It can be difficult to determine, which is why it’s such a serious issue,” she said, noting data that says 80% of people who have COVID-19 have mild respiratory symptoms like that of the cold. “It’s very hard to tell who will have a serious infection and who will not. I think … for more serious symptoms — shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, very high fever, unable to eat or drink well — these are the sorts of questions screening nurses will be asking.”

If it is determined a patient needs a clinical evaluation, “we would follow a very specific protocol,” Wesch said. If there was a high degree of suspicion a patient had COVID-19, that person would be sent to another facility and not be brought to the clinic, she said.

“The first thing I’d do is call the health department if I thought the patient had coronavirus,” Wesch said.

Public Health – Seattle & King County has provided recommendations for residents, among them: do not just admit yourself to the emergency room and instead call a nurse to report symptoms; stay home if you’re sick; practice good hygiene; and stay away from other sick people.

Island action

Vashon Island School District Superintendent Slade McSheehy sent out multiple messages to constituents since the first U.S. COVID-19 death was announced Saturday. While no schools are closing at this time, the district would “immediately be working with Public Health Seattle King County” if a confirmed or suspected case is reported.

McSheehy said the district will be increasing sanitation of facilities and encouraging hand washing practices.

On top of that, international trips are canceled and the district will review other field trip plans before making a decision.

On constituents reporting sickness, McSheehy said, “it is critical that the student stays home from school and the symptoms are reported to your medical provider. Your medical provider will work with PHSKC and DOH who will then coordinate with VISD.”

VashonBePrepared sent out an email message over the weekend and updated its website with information on the virus.

“Everybody’s worried about the COVID-19 coronavirus. Let’s stop talking about it. Let’s do something about it,” wrote Rick Wallace, manager of the Vashon Emergency Operations Center.

The group’s EOC team drill, held on March 4, after The Beachcomber’s press deadline, included a half hour session on what islanders can do to prevent spread of coronavirus and “how to prepare just in case things take a really ugly turn.”

“If you are having any sign of respiratory illness, even if you think it’s only a cold or seasonal flu, do NOT attend this meeting,” an email to the group members read. “Some may wonder whether it is wise for us to even hold a group meeting given the intense media coverage and public concerns about COVID-19. At this time, none of the county, state or federal health agencies are recommending against holding public meetings.”

Jim Hauser, an islander who is part of VashonBePrepared, expressed his own opinion on the seriousness of COVID-19.

“Although the island appears to be isolated (from coronavirus), it isn’t,” he said, noting the people who commute to and from Seattle via ferry. “I think people are already concerned and we need to get better coordinated.

Tyler Young, owner of the Vashon Pharmacy, said customers have come into his business seeking particular products, like masks and hand sanitizer.

The sanitizer, he said on Sunday, had sold out. But he had ordered more than 400 bottles of various sizes to be delivered sometime this week.

“But it will go very quickly,” Young said. “We do see an uptick during flu season, certainly, but nothing like this.”

He said face masks are best used by people who are already sick, to prevent the spread of the disease, rather than protecting people who are not infected. It’s a message that US Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams imparted on to Twitter over the weekend, due to a mask shortage.

Regardless of the misunderstanding, Young said “we’re getting as many [masks] as we can because we’re being asked for them.”

If a customer can’t find what they’re looking for right now at Vashon Pharmacy, Young assured, “we’re doing everything we can to try to get as much supply as we possibly can. Our patients come before the business.”

One of the managers at Vashon Thiftway, who did not want to be named, said on Tuesday that hopefully the store would be able to restock Wednesday on many of the items that were sold out or close to that. He believes the reason is because people are concerned they might have to be quarantined.

“It’s all been pretty busy,” the manager said.

Thriftway’s Clay Gleb said on Monday the store got a shipment of hand sanitizer that day, but by morning, they were down to the last few bottles.

“I think there’s a general sense of people wanting to stock up,” Gleb said.

As for face masks, Vashon Thiftway started seeing shortages of them around the time the COVID-19 news broke, but it’s been hard to order more, he said. Gleb suspects the masks are being diverted to health care workers, “as they should be.”

Bleach and sanitizer wipes have been selling quickly, according to Gleb.

“We’re all just trying to keep up as best we can with what people are looking for,” he said.

Asked about her concerns with the apparent COVID-19 outbreak at the Kirkland nursing facility, Wendy Kleppe, executive director of Vashon Community Care, a senior assisted living facility, told The Beachcomber in an email that officials there have been communicating with its constituents on coronavirus.

“We continue to be vigilant with our protocols for infection control, as is our usual practice, and are on high alert checking for symptoms with both staff and residents and asking any who have cold or flu like symptoms to stay home,” Kleppe wrote.

Tom Langland, president of the board of the Vashon Health Care District, told The Beachcomber that although it’s not the district’s job to provide medical care, “we stand at the ready to facilitate or assist in any preventative programs that are recommended by our local providers.”

“Naturally, we are not the appropriate entity to design or implement any prevention or treatment protocols ourselves, but if Neighborcare needs some kind of specific support or consultation with The District, that door is always open,” he wrote.

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