MOUNT VERNON, Wash. — March 10 was the day Skagit County, Wash., confirmed its first COVID-19 case. It was also the day a singing group would meet and soon become what health officials call a “cluster” of disease.
Though there had been other COVID-19 cases in the state, the Skagit Valley Chorale Board of Directors had not yet heard of a local positive case when it decided to hold rehearsal at Mount Vernon Presbyterian Church.
The board did urge its members to stay home if anyone felt sick or showed symptoms of cough, fever or shortness of breath.
“On the day of the rehearsal, there were no cases of COVID-19 announced in Skagit Valley. There were no closures of schools, restaurants, churches, bowling alleys, banks, libraries, theater, or any other businesses,” according to a statement released later by the board of directors.
Chorale member Cynthia Richardson of Anacortes told the Anacortes American that precautions were taken that day. The room was large, and the members practiced social distancing. There was hand sanitizer available and no signs of illness among the 56 in attendance.
Within several days, though, half of the group was diagnosed with COVID-19. Within 11 days, one member would die. Another would die later.
The Los Angeles Times Seattle bureau reported Sunday that "(n)early three weeks later, 45 have been diagnosed with COVID-19 or are ill with the symptoms, at least three have been hospitalized, and two are dead."
Howard Leibrand, Skagit County’s health officer, said this cluster of cases shows how easily the virus can spread.
“To our knowledge, no one who was there was symptomatic,” he told the Skagit Valley Herald.
The precautions taken at the meeting — increasing hand-washing and maintaining distance from each other — are generally in line with what the county had recommended.
“But that wasn’t enough in this case,” Leibrand said.
It turned out the experience the choir went through would provide new information about the disease. It apparently could spread without touch and among people who were asymptomatic.
Report of a cluster
The choir’s COVID-19 cases sparked an investigation by Skagit County Public Health, which contacted all participants and close contacts of those with symptoms. All were advised to quarantine or isolate themselves.
Public Health reported it was investigating a cluster, but did not name the group.
When it announced its first confirmed positive — at 3 p.m. the day of the rehearsal — the county issued guidelines about avoiding gatherings of more than 10 people, but things were changing quickly that day.
“It’s understandable the group had not seen (the guidelines) yet,” said Kayla Schott-Bresler, deputy administrator with Skagit County.
It would be six more days before Gov. Jay Inslee’s proclamation to ban gatherings of 50 or more people statewide.
Participants in the March 10 rehearsal included residents of Skagit County, Whatcom County, Whidbey Island, Arlington and Lynnwood, Richardson said.
While most of those who became ill have been recovering at home, choir Director Adam Burdick said Monday that a third chorale member has been hospitalized.
Tragedy — and blame
Burdick said the tragedy the group is enduring with the loss of two members and sickness of others has also come with a great deal of scrutiny, and not all of the feedback has been positive.
“We are getting a flood of national media attention right now,” he said. “We’re dealing also with people who are responding in a pretty unpleasant way, saying that we should known better, and that we’re at fault. Which is hard to deal with.”
Burdick said the group made decisions based on information it had at the time, 21 days ago.
“Things have changed dramatically since then,” he said. “And now, I’m hopeful that there’s nobody who is unclear about it.”
Burdick said he’s encouraged the state has set stricter guidelines, but the rules are far from universal.
“It varies, it seems, from state to state and community to community,” he said.
Burdick said he hoped that what happened to the Skagit Valley Chorale will serve as a cautionary tale to help people understand the risks — and that some of those risks are still unknown.
“Some people are understanding that, and some people are not,” he said.
By March 14, Richardson, a 77-year-old a chorale member and former Anacortes City Council member, had extreme fatigue and body aches.
“I had no difficulty breathing, no high fever, no cough. I didn’t have those symptoms, but (on March 19) I tested positive,” she said.
She was able to recover at home.
“I was lucky to have a mild case,” she said.
Richardson said this new strain of coronavirus is so dangerous because it’s unpredictable. There are also concerns about how long someone who became ill should stay away from others. The standard theory is 14 days.
“I’m beyond the date of isolation, but if you don’t know when you contracted the virus, when do you start measuring those 14 days?” Richardson said. “I’m no longer contagious, but I’m staying home — one, because the governor ordered us to; and two, why go out and take the risk of spreading it around?”