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How early COVID-19 detection sounded ‘tornado siren’ for WA response

Downtown Seattle. (Getty Images)

A new report from local Seattle-area scientists and health experts concludes that early detection of COVID-19 in Washington state was crucial to “accelerated public health efforts to mitigate the emerging pandemic.”

How Seattle Flu Study defied federal government to test for coronavirus

This early detection was thanks to the work of the Seattle Flu Study, which had collected nasal swabs from Puget Sound area residents with flu-like symptoms for months prior to the coronavirus outbreak.

After it became clear the virus could potentially be a threat in the United States, the goal became to rework the lab’s testing to figure out whether the outbreak had arrived in Washington state. The Seattle Flu Study proceeded to test its flu samples for COVID-19, despite the federal government denying an initial request, and later sending a cease and desist. That eventually led to the detection of Washington’s first case in February.

“These early data gave Seattle & WA state a warning that SARS-CoV-2 was spreading in our communities,” said Seattle Fred Hutchinson scientist Dr. Steven Pergam. “Growing up in the midwest, this was akin to a tornado siren, telling us to shelter.”

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In the days ahead, a coalition of local health experts — including representatives from the Institute for Disease Modeling, Fred Hutch, the Seattle Flu Study, and more — are recommending “widespread implementation” of sample collection from patients who are otherwise not seeking clinical care, much in the same way the Seattle Flu Study collected its initial samples.

“Looking beyond the current crisis, we envision ubiquitous, community-based sampling for respiratory illnesses as essential infrastructure for early detection and mitigation of future pandemics,” the coalition stated.

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