‘It hits you like a truck.’ One Seattle family’s experience with 'UK' variant of the coronavirus
Sarah Abshire, 35, of Seattle was recovering at home on Saturday, Feb. 6, resting and loading up on Zinc and vitamins. Abshire, her husband, and their daughter contracted the coronavirus a week before, and she hoped her body could continue fending off Covid-19 without hospitalization.
“We're doing okay,” Abshire said by phone that day, her breathing labored.
But by Sunday night, Abshire’s Covid pneumonia warranted a hospital stay, and doctors were able to confirm that she didn’t have the typical strain of coronavirus — she had the “UK” variant. It’s a form of the virus that scientists say is 30 to 50% more contagious and — according to a United Kingdom government report — may be more deadly. This report, however, was based on data collected from a small number of people within limited settings.
Nine people have been confirmed to have the UK variant in King County as of Tuesday, Feb. 9, according to Seattle and King County Public Health. Abshire’s story offers a warning to others, as public health officials ask residents to remain vigilant and cautious as the new, more contagious Covid-19 variant spreads in the Pacific Northwest.
Recently the University of Washington’s Husky Coronavirus Testing program confirmed the UK variant — scientifically referred to as B.1.1.7 — in a student’s test from late January. That student, who is doing fine, had a small number of close contacts who were notified of their exposure.
For Abshire’s family, their Covid journey began after her daughter Willow returned home from her social skills group through the Northwest Center, a nonprofit that serves children and adults with developmental disabilities. She felt tired and slow, which was uncommon for the 9-year-old child.
A day later, Willow had a low-grade fever. And then Abshire’s husband Jeff, who is 40, developed a low-grade fever too. Abshire’s own temperature dipped instead of spiked, she said.
Within a couple days, the family felt better and Abshire said they assumed it was a cold. Abshire returned to teaching at the tutoring center she runs, and saw two students in person that day. Her daughter went back to her social skills group. Jeff, Abshire’s husband, works from home.
But then, without warning, Willow's temperature began to rise, this time hitting 102 degrees.
The next morning, as Abshire lay awake coughing and struggling to breathe, her husband fell out of bed and began moaning. He was having a seizure.
As a special educator, Abshire has had students with seizures before, and recognized what was happening to her husband. She turned him on his side and made sure his airway was clear, before calling 911.
At Northwest Hospital, Abshire said she was told by an emergency room doctor that he suspected they had the UK variant of Covid-19. This was later confirmed with testing.
“It hits you like a truck,” Abshire said. “Once we started showing symptoms, it was pretty downhill from there, really rapidly.”
Data from the U.K. Office for National Statistics indicates people with the new variant are less likely to experience losing their sense of smell or taste. While research on differences in symptoms between the strains is still nascent, anecdotally people report cough, fatigue, muscle pain, and sore throat.
Seattle and King County Public Health said there was no difference in signs and symptoms of the UK variant compared to the more common version, and no difference in terms of their response to the UK variant, other than a heightened emphasis on “what they know works.”
“The steps we know work against the earlier strain of Covid-19 will also work for this variant … we just need to be better at them,” a spokesperson for Seattle and King County Public Health wrote in an emailed statement.
Abshire said that King County contact tracers could only speculate where the family caught the coronavirus.
The Northwest Center confirmed that one child from their kids programs did test positive for Covid-19. That classroom was closed for a 14-day quarantine and will reopen on Feb. 18. No other children or staff tested positive before or after this child’s case, according to the center.
Abshire was home with her family by Tuesday, Feb. 9, after she experienced Covid pneumonia and was hospitalized. Her husband Jeff and daughter Willow continued their recovery, along with Abshire who was “tired and super slow” but happy to be home that day.
Abshire also voiced concerns about reopening schools amid the pandemic, in the wake of her family's battle with Covid-19. Abshire runs and owns the Seattle Youth Safe Space, a tutoring organization.
While at work, Abshire said she dons two masks, a face shield, and gloves. Kids visiting the space are required to wear masks too. In between each student, sanitizing takes half an hour. The social group Abshire’s daughter attends at the Northwest Center follows similar procedures, Abshire said.
“They weren't even able to keep students from contracting Covid and bringing it in,” Abshire said. “I have two families now that I've had to quarantine because I taught them … when I was feeling great, before I was diagnosed.”
Given that her daughter contracted Covid-19 despite precautions, Abshire said she couldn’t see these practices being foolproof on a much larger scale, including within Seattle Public Schools, where Abshire used to teach.
“I worry about a lot of my former colleagues and close friends through the tutoring center,” Abshire said. “I still have tons of connections with teachers all over the city and they're scared and the school board and superintendent Juneau keep pushing this idea that it's safe to go back in.”
Outside of some special education students whose individualized learning plans call for in-person instruction, Seattle students continue to learn from home as Superintendent Denise Juneau continues discussions with the Seattle Education Association.
While the debate on in-person student learning continues, in King County, restaurants, gyms, and museums are open for indoor service at 25% capacity.
At the same time, Dr. Anthony Fauci has advocated for returning younger students — particularly those in elementary and middle school — who he said would be unlikely to spread the coronavirus within school buildings. He pointed to studies that show that while older students can transmit the virus as easily as adults, that was not the case for young students.