DHS office in Washington state shutters after employee catches the coronavirus
03/04/2020 // Franz Walker // Views

An office of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in the state of Washington has been closed for two weeks after an employee fell ill with COVID-19. The employee had apparently contracted the virus after visiting a relative at a nursing facility which is experiencing an outbreak of COVID-19.

Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf made the announcement at the beginning of his congressional testimony on Tuesday. Wolf revealed that the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) office in Tukwila in King County, Washington will be closed for 14 days after an employee had contracted the virus. The employee had previously visited the Life Care Center in Kirkland, Washington where a number of cases of the coronavirus (COVID-19) have been reported.

“Out of an abundance of caution, following [the] recommended procedure, I ordered a DHS facility in King County, Washington State, to close, beginning today; directed those employees to telework, if possible, in order to reduce the threat of community spread of the coronavirus,” stated Wolf. “At this time, the affected offices will remain closed 14 days, and all employees have been directed to self-quarantine for 14 days.”

Employee visited Life Care before the outbreak

DHS officials confirmed that the employee had visited Life Care in Kirkland before it was known that there was a COVID-19 outbreak at the facility. Acting Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli stated that the employee began exhibiting flu-like symptoms four days after visiting the nursing home. According to Cuccinelli, the employee started feeling ill on February 26 after leaving work. Once the news that patients had been diagnosed with the coronavirus at the nursing home, the employee and their family self-quarantined and reported their exposure to their employers and other officials.


"DHS takes the safety & health of our employees & applicants seriously," stated deputy secretary Cuccinelli. "We're following CDC's guidelines and encourage all employees and applicants to stay home if they are feeling ill or exhibiting any flu-like symptoms."

Meanwhile, Wolf praised the employee for their response to their infection saying “I'm pleased to report this employee embodied what it means to lead by example.”

COVID-19 arrived in Washington state earlier than believed

Counting the DHS employee, Washington state now counts 27 cases of the COVID-19 with 9 reported deaths. The majority of the cases come from King County -- where both the Life Care facility and USCIS office are located -- which has 21 cases and eight deaths.

A study on the genetic structure of samples of the virus from two of the cases suggest that it may have been spreading across the state for quite some time. Both patients live in the same county but are not known to have had contact with the each other. Additionally, the second case occurred well after the first would have no longer been contagious. Dr. Trevor Bedford, an associate professor at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the University of Washington, states that this means that the virus could have been spreading through the community for close to six weeks. (Related: Coronavirus patient released “by mistake,” wanders through mall for two hours.)

According to Dr. Bedford, it was possible that the two cases had been introduced separately into the United States. However, he said that it was unlikely as in both cases the virus contained a rare genetic variation that has been found in only two of the 59 genetic samples that had been shared from China.

Other scientists not involved with the study have agreed with this conclusion. One such scientist, Andrew Rambaut, a professor of molecular evolution at the University of Edinburghstated that it was “extremely unlikely” that two genetically related viruses could arrive in the same geographic region of the U.S. unless they were connected.

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