Why Washington state was so prepared for its pandemic challenge

Why We Wrote This

Recent weeks have been the ultimate stress test for how states handle adversity. An embrace of innovation and collective spirit are why Washington is shaping up as a model.

John Froschauer/AP
Gagan Thind watches as her daughter Seva drops off ballots in the Washington State primary March 10, 2020 in Seattle. Washington is a vote-by-mail state.

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When the coronavirus first appeared in the United States, Washington state, it seemed, was headed for trouble. But while other states struggled to care for the growing number of coronavirus patients, Washington managed the crisis so efficiently that officials actually gave 400 ventilators back to the federal government.

What’s more, the state managed to pull off a primary election at the height of the outbreak. Washington’s turnout ranked highest among all states holding primaries to date – 49.5%.

So, why Washington? The state has always been a bit different – a place of contradictions. It is both an economic titan and a liberal stronghold. It embraces both individual rights and the wisdom of the collective.

It was this environment that empowered local officials to act swiftly and decisively. But even before Gov. Jay Inslee issued a stay-at-home order, several of the state’s tech powerhouses shuttered their offices. And, undeterred by a little isolation, the citizenry has done their part as well.

The result of all these ingredients is a unique brew of communalism and innovation. As Amy Hagopian, a professor of public health at the University of Washington, puts it, “We get that we all succeed together.”

The state of Washington, it seems, was made for this moment. 

Successfully hold a major election during a pandemic? Check. Flatten the curve of coronavirus cases? Check. Manage the crisis so efficiently that you can actually give 400 ventilators back to the federal government? Check. 

If COVID-19 is the ultimate stress test for a society – revealing how well it protects health, manages the economy, and comes together in crisis – no state might be passing with higher marks than Washington. 

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

Despite being America’s first hotspot, coronavirus cases have been going down for six consecutive weeks. Emergency department admissions for people with “COVID-like symptoms” peaked the week of March 22 with 557 admissions statewide, and dropped to 201 this past week, allowing small re-openings like farmers markets. And despite a primary election held at the height of the outbreak, Washington’s turnout ranked highest among all states holding primaries to date – 49.5%.

“Washington knocked it out of the park,” says Phil Keisling, Oregon’s former secretary of State. “You were ground zero for the COVID-19 pandemic, and still you voted almost double the rate of other big Super Tuesday states the week before, including California and Texas.”

So, why Washington? Is it something in the salmon and saltwater inlets? The answer is: Washington is not just “off in the corner of the country” literally. It has always been a bit different – a place of contradictions. 

It is both an economic titan – home to Amazon and Microsoft – and a liberal stronghold. It is both socially cool – so culturally insular that people joke about the “Seattle Freeze” – and a dynamic hub of globalism. It embraces both individual rights – giving women the right to vote 10 years before the 19th Amendment – and the wisdom of the collective.

Behind it all is Seattle, a city that is one of America’s best-educated and has an ethic of “thinking big” ingrained in its founding spirit. During the past few months, that has resulted in a different picture of how the nation can respond to the coronavirus.

John Froschauer/AP
King County Elections workers collect ballots from a drop box during the Washington State primary March 10, 2020, in Seattle.

One takeaway is that success helps dampen partisanship. Take voting by mail, a divisive issue at the federal level. President Donald Trump has rebuffed calls for a nationwide vote-by-mail election this year, claiming “mail ballots are corrupt.” 

But here in Washington state, “Do you ever hear any Republicans here say we have to get rid of mail ballots?” asks Dwight Pelz, former chair of the state Democratic Party. “Do you ever see any Republican bills in the Legislature to repeal mail-in balloting? No. 

“Why?” he continues. “Because their constituents love it. According to the Republican ideology, we should be the most corrupt voting system in the country. But we aren’t.”

That sentiment is echoed in the more conservative eastern parts of the state. “Voting is our democracy,” says Joe Kelly, who lives in the tiny mountain hamlet of Ardenvoir. “Mail-in ballots are more democratic.”

And Eastern Washington has been doing its part in flattening the curve, too. “We go to Wenatchee once a week to shop,” Mr. Kelly adds. “You don’t see any kids on the streets of Wenatchee. They’re mostly at home, which is a big change.”

Yet it is in the Seattle area where the state’s COVID-19 story is most compelling.

King County became the first American epicenter of the pandemic when the virus was discovered here for the first time on U.S. shores. The response was comprehensive. 

First, the region’s robust public-health sector sprang into action. The ecosystem includes the University of Washington, the Gates Foundation, and many other local NGOs.

“Most of these experts were trained at the University of Washington,” says Amy Hagopian, a professor of public health at the university. 

It’s impossible to overestimate the role of this massive institution in the region’s macro-culture, she adds. Economists, for example, have long said that Boeing will never stop manufacturing airplanes here because it doubts other areas of the country could supply the consistently smart pool of talent the university continually turns out.

But businesses and the citizenry played their part, too. 

“When Amazon learned it had its first case of COVID-19, it issued a directive the very next day for everyone to work at home,” says Irene Voskamp, who works at Amazon in downtown Seattle. “Google did the same thing. Then Microsoft. Then Expedia.”

With all those workers gone, downtown businesses reduced hours or sent employees home even before the “stay home” order. “Take all of those people – call it 100,000 – out of the city, you flatten the curve,” she says.

Ms. Voskamp says the engineering mindset in tech plays a role: “Leadership understands what an exponential growth curve means,” she says. “They actually understand math: ‘If we have one case today, we’ll have 10 cases next week, and a hundred cases the week after that, and a thousand cases the week after that.’

“They had evidence from China. They had evidence from Italy,” she points out. “They could see there’s no reason Seattle would be any different.”

The biggest factor, Ms. Voskamp says, was that “leadership that was willing to make hard decisions and accept short-term pain to avoid long-term disaster. That’s something not common in politicians, though maybe it should be, but it is an essential characteristic of good leaders.

“It doesn’t always make you popular,” she added, “but there are times when being unpopular is the right thing to do.”

Seattle is a place used to thinking not just big, but also small. Last week, in response to people’s need for safe exercise while sheltering in place – in a region where the outdoors has always been a strong lure — Mayor Jenny Durkan announced the permanent closures of selected streets to most vehicles.The idea is to provide people a place to walk, jog or bike in safety, sans cars and trucks. Giving citizens some 20 miles of residential streets spread across the city’s neighborhoods may not be as drastic as the governor’s sweeping mandates to dampen the rate of viral infection, but it signals to Seattleites that their leaders care about their well being on multiple levels: not just their public-health needs, but also their desires for recreation, community, and even to escape, now and then, the confines of their homes.

That culture springs from the city itself. 

The message of “Sons of the Profits,” a history book about the city: “The people who founded Seattle, they were forward thinkers. They were willing to make bold bets. It’s still in the DNA of the city,” Ms. Voskamp insists.

In King County, which surrounds Seattle, more than half of adults have college degrees, compared with about one third of adults nationally. Residents here are overall younger and, with a median household income of $89,000, earn nearly 50% more than the median American household. 

Seattle is annually named one of the country’s most well-read cities. It also is politically liberal: In 2016, some 87% of residents mailed in ballots for Hillary Clinton.

That’s a vestige of Western Washington’s past. Union organizers preached Karl Marx in lumber camps. The massive, five-day Seattle General Strike of 1919 is a historical touchstone. Utopian colonies routinely sprouted throughout Puget Sound. 

The legendary toast offered by national Democratic Party leader James “Big Jim” Farley in the mid-1930s perhaps summed it up best: “To the 47 States of the Union and the Soviet of Washington.”

But in these times, in particular, Washingtonians might have an even bigger superpower. They don’t mind a little isolation.

The reason the state was able to return 400 ventilators is that its citizens so dutifully complied with commands to shelter at home and observe social distancing.

The region is known, especially among newcomers, for the Seattle Freeze. It’s shorthand for explaining why locals are perennially, passively indifferent to strangers. Almost all who move here lament how tough it can be to forge close friendships.

Combine the “Freeze” with the city’s Scandinavian culture, with its clannishness and built-in cultural distancing, and you practically have a ready-made pandemic boot camp.

A meme circulating on local Facebook pages jokes that no one needs a governor’s order to shelter-in-place when you’ve already been conditioned by so many brush-offs to sequester at home.  

The result of all these ingredients is a unique brew of communalism and innovation. 

Says Professor Hagopian of the University of Washington: “We get that we all succeed together.” 

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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