An employee of Langland Dental Associates on Vashon tested positive for COVID-19 last week.
The staff member, who lives on Vashon, learned at work that she had recently been exposed to the virus while traveling and left the practice right away to enter quarantine. She was tested on Thursday, Oct. 1. The results came back positive on Friday, Oct. 2.
Four patients who were in close contact with the employee in a shared space were informed about the positive test result on Friday. They have since entered quarantine at home.
At press time, the employee was not presenting any symptoms. The four patients remained in quarantine but had not been tested yet due to concerns about the unreliability of early testing. A recent study by researchers from John Hopkins University found that testing people for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, too early in the course of infection is likely to result in a false negative test, even though they may eventually test positive for the virus.
A statement posted on the website for Langland Dental Associates on Sunday outlines the measures that were taken in consultation with the Vashon Medical Reserve Corps and the Emergency Operations Center upon discovery of the positive test result.
The office will be closed this week, tentatively reopening on Oct. 12. In the meantime, all staff will enter quarantine at home and be tested, and all equipment and surfaces in the office will be professionally sanitized.
These additional steps are not scripted or required by public health agencies, the American Dental Association or Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but Dr. Marc Langland, DDS, told The Beachcomber in an email that staff are carefully approaching the situation and felt the precautions were necessary.
The statement said that no other patients had any contact with the affected staff member and noted there was “little risk” of other staff having been exposed, citing the hospital-grade personal protective equipment staff wears daily, including N95 masks, face shields, gloves and medical scrubs as directed by the ADA.
The ADA revised its COVID-19 protocols last month. It urged practitioners to monitor for the potential spread of respiratory droplets — one of the most common pathways of infection, according to the CDC — produced during procedures or from the use of instruments, and to fully utilize all PPE available that offers a level of protection similar to medical teams performing intubations.
The infected staff person at Langland Dental Associates wore full PPE at all times at work, according to Langland.
“Ever since we reopened in May, we have been operating under the assumption that coronavirus is present in our community and have been prepared for this situation,” he said, noting other considerations and practices implemented in the building in light of the pandemic. “We installed virus killing HVAC systems, aerosol reduction systems, rigorous PPE rules and all CDC guidelines are enforced. Even before the pandemic, infection control was at the core of our practice.”
Langland said that both patients and staff are required to answer a list of screening questions upon arrival, and their temperatures are taken. He declined to answer how many patients are served by Langland Dental or how many were seen at the office last week but said that staggering appointments usually means the building has low occupancy at most times.
Rick Wallace, the vice president of Vashon Be Prepared, commended the actions of staff to minimize the risk of danger as much as possible, saying their response sets the bar high.
“We all wish for a day when we don’t have to worry about COVID-19. But, until then, we need to know our island businesses and other institutions will do the right thing. That’s what happened here,” he said. “Marc Langland and his team responded to this situation perfectly, every step of the way. They knew what to do, and they did it. It’s a model response that every business can follow if they face a similar situation.”
Island businesses have already had to respond to such events.
In March, Pacific Research Laboratories on Vashon learned that a Sawbones employee, who was not a resident of Vashon, had contracted COVID-19, prompting a two-week closure that coincided with Gov. Jay Inslee’s Stay Home, Stay Safe order to combat the spread of the coronavirus.
Weeks later, after readers submitted numerous tips to The Beachcomber, a spokesperson confirmed that a mail carrier working out of the island’s main United States Postal Office tested positive for COVID-19. Several other postal workers who were exposed to that employee also entered quarantine. In July, two Chase bank employees tested positive for the virus, news that was initially shared on social media by the spouse of one of the employees.
The infected staff member at the dental practice is just the latest reminder that the virus has not spared Vashon and is not going away.
Now in the seventh month of a pandemic that has killed nearly 210,000 Americans, the island of fewer than 12,000 residents has begun to see an increase in the number of new coronavirus cases reported. There have been 24 cases of COVID-19 on the island since March, with 10 of those recorded just in the last month, driving up Vashon’s rate of positive test results to 3% in September according to the MRC (see the weekly COVID-19 situation report on page 8 of this week’s paper for a closer look at the numbers).
By comparison, over in Seattle — with a population of around 750,000 — the rate of positive test results is staying down. Despite being an early epicenter of the disease, Seattle has the lowest cumulative cases of the 30 largest American cities with available data. In the last 14 days, 1.2% of tests in Seattle were positive, according to Public Health – Seattle & King County. In all, just over 5,800 tests in the city have come back positive since early March, or 1.9% of all tests.
While Vashon does not have an extraordinary number of cases overall — more than half of the recent cases belonged to two households, and the island is still only reporting one hospitalization so far — the sudden increase is still considerable, Dr. Jim Bristow, leader of the MRC testing program, said.
“It’s more cases than we’ve seen,” he said. “The numbers are small, but it’s real.”
He is not surprised by the additional positive cases on Vashon. Most of them can be attributed to exposure to an infected person while traveling.
“We’ve seen a lot more people that are being exposed, and most of those exposures have occurred through travel. It’s been either people that are moving back to Vashon, having been away, or going to family gatherings elsewhere,” he said, adding that people shouldn’t travel at all unless absolutely essential. “If you have to travel, your best bet is to keep to yourself in quarantine, to the extent you can before you go, and definitely, if you’re going to a place where there is COVID-19, to quarantine for two weeks when you come back.”
From coast to coast, cities and states are reporting an uptick in new infections as they weigh plans to reopen. Many rural states and communities across the country are faring badly, with skyrocketing case numbers in states such as North Dakota and South Dakota as health officials scramble to keep up. Few, if any, places are less susceptible to the virus than others, Bristow said.
“People assume that it took so long for the virus to get to rural communities — ours included — that somehow we were protected because we’re in wide, open spaces. Well, not so much,” he said.
The virus was even able to infiltrate the most powerful office in the world. On Monday, President Donald Trump announced his discharge from Walter Reed Medical Center on Twitter, where he was being treated over the weekend for his own COVID-19 diagnosis. The New York Times reported that an outbreak among nearly a dozen of Trump’s associates may have originated from a mostly maskless event held late last week at the White House to honor the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett.
“Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life,” Trump tweeted on Monday. When he arrived back at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. later that evening, he took off his mask and posed for photos in front of the White House before going inside.