Forty-two counties and several parts of Alaska have yet to record their first death related to Covid-19. But for rural Grant County, Washington, the first death from Covid-19 came only weeks after the World Health Organization had named the deadly respiratory illness.
On March 8, 2020, a nursing home resident in the town of Quincy, Washington, just east of the Cascade Mountains, became the first rural victim of Covid-19, according to data compiled by USA Facts.
Just three days earlier, on March 5, the Grant County Health District had begun an urgent contact tracing effort. According to a local CBS TV affiliate, they sought to identify anyone “who [has] visited events at the Quincy Senior Center between February 13 and 28, and a Quincy High School musical production on February 2.”
On March 5, 2020, the national Covid-19 numbers were small but changing rapidly. Based on what we now know about the progression of Covid-19, the Quincy nursing home certainly would have had a sick resident for a week or more before the call went out.
Grant Health District hadn’t raised the alarm until March 5 because that was when a viral test for the resident of the Quincy elder care facility confirmed the illness was actually Covid-19.
As the resident grew sicker, the nursing home sent the resident to a hospital in Douglas County, a small metro county to the northwest. That the hospital was “out of county” was hardly unusual for many rural residents, in Washington or elsewhere, who often have to seek medical care in bigger places, frequently in metropolitan settings.
A Cascading Crisis
But the alarm was not just local. A case in rural Grant County meant the coronavirus had jumped east of the Cascades. State of Washington officials and national health agencies were already fixated on the spread of the novel coronavirus since it first came ashore in Seattle on January 22.
It was only two days earlier, on January 20, that “Human-to-human transmission of the novel SARS-CoV-2 virus” had been confirmed, according to reporting in The Guardian.
Leading up to March 5, coronavirus was spreading rapidly in the United States. Confirmed cases totaled 182 in 37 counties and 15 states, including Washington, but it hadn’t yet been spotted in Grant County. The first known coronavirus case recorded in rural America occurred on February 21 in Humboldt County, on the northern California coast. Two additional rural counties were among those 37 with recorded cases prior to March 5: Umatilla County, Oregon, with one confirmed case and Grafton County, New Hampshire with two confirmed cases.
In Washington, the coronavirus was still seemingly contained to just two counties in the sprawling Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue metropolitan area centered on Puget Sound. As of the pivotal Thursday of March 5, 2020, the Seattle metro had confirmed 69 cases and recorded 11 deaths among its population of 4 million.
Over the same weekend the Quincy resident died in Grant County, seven more deaths occurred in Seattle.
“We hit it about a year ago,” said Charles Featherstone, a staff writer for the Columbia Basin Herald. He is not certain who that first person lost to Covid-19 was. “The Grant Health District never released that,” he explained. “We’re a tiny newspaper staff and by the time it might have been time [to] look into that, you know, we were knee-deep in a pandemic and stuff was happening … very quickly, on a daily basis.”
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A week later, on March 14, 2020, Grant County had still experienced only one death, but it did have its second case. Neighboring Kittitas County, to the west, had three. Yakima County, another small metro neighbor to the southwest had four. Along the Cascades, from Portland, Oregon, up to the Canadian border, nearly 600 cases had been confirmed and 21 additional deaths were reported in Washington.
By the end of March, the first month of the outbreak, Grant County had 63 Covid-19 cases, but no additional deaths. Eight neighboring counties, all east of the Cascades, had 395 cases and seven deaths. In the rest of Washington state, 25 counties, metro and nonmetro, logged 880 cases with 214 deaths.
The First of Many Rural Counties
What started with one rural death would become many more across rural America by the end of March. More than half of the nation’s rural counties — 1,079 out of 1,976 — were reporting Covid-19 cases. And the rural death toll reached 130. The remote nature of many rural places slowed the spread in a way that cities could not count on.
At this same time, almost all of the nation’s metro counties — 1,042 of 1,165 — had cases, 174,545 to be exact, and the death toll had reached 3,390.
But the nation was heading into lockdown, in rural and urban places alike. The Columbia Basin Herald’s Featherstone experienced the lockdown up close in Moses Lake, Grant County’s largest city, with more than 20,000 people.
“What I primarily remember is when the lockdown started … there was the initial response to it all [that] was pretty good…being essential workers here in the state of Washington, for the first two weeks, I sort of had the streets to myself,” he said. “But the lockdowns got old fairly quickly, particularly for small business people.”
Grant County is agricultural oriented. “Potato production is a big deal here – potatoes, onions – but we also have a lot of food processing here…large food processing companies, Lamb Weston, Basic American Foods are all here as well,” he said.
Featherstone also pointed out a host of high-tech businesses, like Microsoft, and others producing for exports, having a strong foothold in the county too. But probably the hardest hit were the Main Street brick-and mortar operations.
“A lot of businesses were closed,” he said. “And not just closed for the two weeks or six weeks or eight weeks or however long the initial set of lockdowns was, but closed for the duration and a number of them didn’t make it.”
As we all soon found out, this was just the beginning of a pandemic that would reach every corner of the country and take many lives in our rural communities.