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How Seattle Flu Study defied federal government to test for coronavirus

A map showing the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus in the United States. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

A New York Times report outlined how restrictions imposed by the federal government greatly limited the ability of Washington state to track and test the spread of coronavirus in its early days.

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The state’s early detection of coronavirus began with Seattle Flu Study Director Dr. Helen Chu, who is credited with first identifying its presence in Washington.

“She’s a true American hero, [who] actually broke this epidemic identified in Washington state when no one else wanted her to test for the virus,” Harvard Chan School of Public Health epidemiologist Dr. Eric Ding told KIRO Radio’s Gee and Ursula Show. “Without her, this epidemic could have been 10 times worse.”

The Seattle Flu Study had collected nasal swabs from Puget Sound area residents with flu-like symptoms for months. Chu’s initial goal was to rework her lab’s testing to figure out whether coronavirus had arrived in Washington state, in an effort limit its spread as quickly as possible.

That request was denied by the federal government, who argued that because the project was specifically funded for the flu, she couldn’t test for a different virus, even as part of something that Dr. Chu viewed was in the public interest.

“Our leaders are bureaucrats, and for other various reasons that I do not yet know, they basically did not want this project reallocated or partly modified,” Dr. Ding said.

Despite the denied request, Chu and her team went ahead and ran the tests for coronavirus anyway starting on Feb. 25, sans approval from the government. It wasn’t long before a test from a local Washington teenager with no travel history came back positive for the virus.

With coronavirus having officially arrived at Washington’s doorstep, opposition from the federal government persisted.

“Even after she reported the results, the federal government tried to stop her with a cease and desist,” Ding said.

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From there, the rest was history. Washington state has continued to fight for more expansive testing, confirmed cases of the virus have increased daily, and large events over 250 people in three counties have been put on hold for at least the next month.

Had Dr. Chu been allowed to track and test her samples earlier, though, much of that possibly could have been avoided.

“I think that’s really, really frustrating, because had we listened to her even sooner, and had she been given permission to test sooner, we could have stopped this epidemic,” Ding said.

Listen to the Gee and Ursula Show weekday mornings from 9 a.m. – 12 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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