‘I’m really fighting a storm’: Snohomish, King County communities describe year since COVID-19 arrived there

Grace Hauck and Harrison Hill, USA TODAY
·9 min read

EVERETT, Wash. – It's been a full year since the first known U.S. case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Snohomish County in a 35-year-old man returning from Wuhan, China.

He was admitted on Jan. 20, 2020, to Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett.

"The world shifted for us, and the world shifted maybe a little bit earlier here, but it shifted for all of us," Mayor Cassie Franklin told USA TODAY last week. "Our city is transformed by this and we still don’t know all the ways because we aren’t through it yet."

A year on, longtime residents, small business owners and medical professionals reflected on how they learned of a first patient in their midst, and how they have been navigating the pandemic.

Sharon Tolbert
Sharon Tolbert

Sharon Tolbert

Tennessee native Sharon Tolbert, 55, moved to Everett in March to open a soul food restaurant, Grandma’s In Da Kitchen, just as the pandemic was heating up in Snohomish County.

"I picked up everything and just put all my eggs in one basket to move here in Everett," Tolbert said. "So the ups and downs have been pretty scary. … Right now, I’m really fighting a storm."

Tolbert has lost four relatives to COVID-19 and one of her regular customers, a Boeing employee. She has never held her five-month-old grandson, King, who is fighting COVID-19. And she’s still processing the loss of her son, who was fatally shot five years ago. His face illuminates a mural on an outside wall of the restaurant, alongside an image of Breonna Taylor.

"Everything I do really, I just keep going because I hear his voice telling me to keep going. So I guess that’s how I process things."


Brad Hultman
Brad Hultman

Brad Hultman

Longtime resident Brad Hultman, 72, drives down to the hardware store, buys coffee and cheerios to feed the seagulls, and parks overlooking the harbor marina with his chihuahua, Peanut.

"I like the activity of the waterfront. I was born and raised in Everett and I’ve lived here pretty much all my life," Hultman said.

In Hultman’s lifetime, the city, the largest in Snohomish County, has quadrupled in size, bolstered by the arrival of Boeing, the U.S. Navy and, later, Microsoft and Amazon. When the first U.S. case of COVID-19 was confirmed in the area, Hultman didn’t initially think it was a big deal.

"I belong to the Elks Club, so I went in there one day wearing a mask and a hazmat suit and all this stuff and kind of made a joke about it. Everybody kind of thought it was like the flu or something. But then it just kept getting worse and worse and worse and people realized, 'Oh yeah, we gotta pay attention to this.'"


Holly Lawing
Holly Lawing

Holly Lawing

Snohomish County native Holly Lawing, 34, manages a colorful, eclectic all-day breakfast restaurant, Kate’s, that her mother opened in downtown Everett. But the business has been closed for most of the year.

"We’re just people who like people—hearing about different kinds of people, different stories," Lawing said. "I don’t remember (COVID-19) being that big of a deal at the very beginning. The first time I noticed that it might actually affect business was within two weeks of the shutdown."

Lawing has been podded up with her two kids, 8 and 10, and mother, but she hasn’t seen her father, who has a lung disease, in a year. Lawing said her longtime family friend, Vern, who had been in a nursing home, was intubated and passed away from COVID-19 in March. He grew close to the family after he stopped into the restaurant years ago.

"We’d mostly just talk. He was a veteran of the Korean War and also Vietnam. He just had neat stories and a different life experience than I’ll ever have," Lawing said. "He was just a kind man."


Dr. Jay Cook
Dr. Jay Cook

Dr. Jay Cook

Dr. Jay Cook, chief medical officer at Providence Regional Medical Center, was home in Mukilteo, Washington, when he got the call that his hospital had the first known U.S. coronavirus patient. The next day, he would tell the public there was no immediate danger to them.

"One thing our experience with the COVID pandemic has taught us is to be humble with our assumptions and funds of knowledge," he said. "This is a novel coronavirus, so we really had no experience with managing patients with this particular infection. So I believe that in retrospect that it would have been better if we had taken a very conservative route."

Vaccines have been a source of hope for Cook but he urges people to continue taking public health precautions. "It’s important to understand that we really need to keep the masking and the distancing going for at least another year I think, until a critical mass of the population does get immunized."


Lisa Lamping
Lisa Lamping

Lisa Lamping

Lisa Lamping, 54, a veteran and former Boeing employee, owns a laundry service in downtown Everett, where she’s lived for decades and raised her two daughters. She was sitting on her couch when she saw the news of the first case at Providence Regional Medical Center. The media was overblowing the situation, she thought at the time.

"It didn’t seem like a big deal. It was just like, 'Oh, it’s here in Everett,'" she said. "Most people didn’t believe it."

The bread and butter of Lamping’s laundry business, At Your Leisure Services – once bulk orders from the wedding industry – has shifted over the past year.

"We’ve lost 20 customers, yet I’m making more money than before COVID. The CARES Act created more business … They’re doing a lot for homeless people, so we’re doing the laundry for the showers they opened, for the shelters. For a while, we were even doing the laundry for the hospital when it moved into the arena," Lamping said. "I think I will be affected later, once the CARES Act goes away."


Dale Amundsen
Dale Amundsen

Dale Amundsen

Dale Amundsen, 68, a chaplain working in King County, hopes to bring comfort, hope and inspiration for families who have lost loved ones amid the pandemic.

"Of course, with almost any death, the question is why, and with COVID, it’s the same why," Amundsen said. "There’s maybe some anger about it – maybe if we hadn’t done this or hadn’t gone here. And you can’t answer those questions in most cases. We can ask why all we want, but the focus has got to be on the life they lived more than the death they had."

Amundsen has participated in nearly 5,000 funerals, and for him, the past year has been brutal. "Sometimes we just got to say, that’s the way it is. We may never know."


Sarah Wilkerson
Sarah Wilkerson

Sarah Wilkerson

Sarah Wilkerson, manager of infection prevention, remembers the day she received a call from Providence Regional Medical Center alerting her that they had a patient who'd recently been to Wuhan and tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

"We decided at that moment that because it was such a unique situation, not something had anybody really seen yet, especially not in the United States, that we would open our bio-containment unit," Wilkerson said.

"The hardest days are – it’s just ever-changing. It’s been a year. You’d think that all the questions that could possibly come up would have come up by now. But there’s just a new encounter with every single day, and some days are harder than others."


Sean Weaver

As a child, Sean Weaver was hesitant to want to become a doctor after seeing his mother battle multiple kinds of cancer, including Lymphoma. Now an Emergency Medical Specialist, Weaver was part of the BEST team, which responded to the first confirmed coronavirus case at Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett, Washington.

Around the same time, Weaver's wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, so he decided to move out of his family's home. "When I wasn’t working I would go in at night and sit in the garage or sit on the deck and have dinner with them, six feet apart. Never hugging my kids or interacting with them besides talking," Weaver said. "And that went on for four-and-a-half months total until mid-July and, at that point, her chemotherapy was done."

Weaver cared for many of America's first confirmed COVID-19 cases, and moved back in with his wife and two children at the end of July. "It was a hard thing to do. I’m glad we did it. I’m glad I was till able to work and care for the people here."


Elizabeth Baty
Elizabeth Baty

Elizabeth Baty

Elizabeth Baty, 58, a funeral director at a family-run funeral home in King County, recalls gathering with a dozen staff members in the company chapel in late February to discuss the coronavirus pandemic.

"We had a what-if situation," Baty said. What if the virus came to King County? What if we ran out of PPE? Days later, residents at the nearby LifeCare Center of Kirkland nursing home would begin to die from COVID-19.

She had been busy all year, but her workload increased significantly last month. "Now that we’re a year down, some people are mad," she said. "They’re mad that they’re still in this situation. They’re mad that they have to consider their own death."


Dr. George Diaz
Dr. George Diaz

Dr. George Diaz

Dr. George Diaz, an infectious diseases specialist at Providence Regional Medical Center, had just returned home to his wife and five kids from an infectious diseases conference in Florida when he received the news of a positive test.

"It was very surprising that we were going to have the first patient in the US at our hospital," Diaz said. "When the patient was admitted, there were two of us that were primarily taking care of the first patient to keep continuity. But thereafter once we started seeing a surge, the entire (infectious diseases) department began seeing these patients."

A year, staff is exhausted, Diaz said.

"They are fatigued as a whole, as are all healthcare workers in the country. We have been dealing with this for a year, and what we would ask is for people to continue to do the things that prevent admissions – wearing masks, social distancing, and getting the vaccine when available. Those are the things that are going to help healthcare workers in the long-run."


This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Snohomish, King County residents describe year since COVID-19 arrived