Kirkland nursing facility, nation’s first COVID-19 outbreak, gets vaccines

The sun was shining on Life Care Center in Kirkland Monday morning as the long-term care facility readied for its first COVID-19 vaccinations, 10 months after a then-unknown virus rapidly spread through residents and staff. 

Life Care Center became the first viral outbreak of COVID-19 in the U.S. at the end of February. Within a month, 39 residents died. 

"It could have happened anywhere, it just happened to happen here," nurse Chelsey Earnest said.

Earnest works as director of nursing at a sister facility in Federal Way, but volunteered to work at Life Care Center in Kirkland during those darkest days, when much of the staff was out sick and residents were dying every day.

"Watching these families and these patients go through this was very difficult," Earnest said. "I would not want to do it again but if I had to, I would."

RELATED: Inslee announces one-time payments for pandemic unemployment recipients

On Monday, Earnest was among those to receive a first dose of COVID-19 vaccine as the first vaccines arrived at the facility. 

Life Care Centers staff and residents are being vaccinated through a federal vaccination program with Walgreens and CVS. The program kicked off in Washington state Monday. A big day for all long-term care facilities, the executive director of Life Care Center of Kirkland said, "it means a little more" to see vaccinations happen there.

While the Kirkland facility was hit first and hardest in the state, outbreaks soon spread. All but two skilled nursing facilities in King County have had at least one COVID-19 case. 

RELATED: UW Medicine researchers conducting phase 3 trial of Novavax COVID-19 vaccine

While cases associated with long-term care facilities make up just 6% of COVID-19 cases statewide, they account for 52% of the state’s deaths.

In December, weekly COVID-19 illnesses linked to long-term care facilities reached near pandemic highs. Deaths, however, are still significantly lower than they were in spring. Now vaccines are ready to reach the most vulnerable. 

Residents and staff are not required to be vaccinated.