A wholesome activity leads to infection: Square dancing

There’s lot of touching and intermingling, and many square dancers in the region have fallen ill.

LYNNWOOD — Stephen Cole said he is just getting over an illness that had him bedridden for two weeks.

He’s confident he had coronavirus, but he’ll never know for sure. He never got tested. He didn’t bother, he said, because people were being turned away, and health officials have been telling everyone not to flood health care facilities.

Cole, 51, said he knows where he and others have likely picked up the virus.

It’s an unlikely culprit, a physical activity full of wholesome charm and friendliness: square dancing.

“To me it is spreading like hot cakes,” Cole said. “… This is everything you could possibly want for a transmission vector.”

In square dancing, there’s plenty of close contact. Participants greet each other with hugs and hold hands while dancing in squares of eight. Switching groups throughout the night is encouraged, so after a few hours everyone in the crowd — as few as 16, and up to 80 or so — effectively becomes exposed to any bugs that might be going around.

Many people in the square dancing scene are older, and some have health complications, falling in the high-risk categories for the coronavirus.

It’s everything health officials advise against.

Cole lives in Kirkland and is a caller for square dance events throughout the region. In recent weeks, he’s received a flood of emails from participants saying they were sick, quarantined at home or hospitalized with flu-like symptoms. Last weekend, about 15 people called with an illness. At the time, Cole knew of six who had tested positive for the coronavirus. Since then he’s lost count.

Usually, a sunshine committee will send get-well cards.

“We had so many people report sick that it’d be easier first to send cards to people who are well, saying, ‘Hey, glad you’re doing well!’” Cole said.

In the 25 years he’s been calling dances, Cole said, he’s never seen so many people become ill. He felt it had to be tied to the local coronavirus outbreak.

“That’s just too coincidental to me,” he said.

Cole believes he picked up the virus at a Lynnwood dance in February. In the following days, he said, his body ached and he had trouble breathing. He got a cough and a fever. Ten days passed before it stopped feeling like “someone’s squeezing all my joints into a vise.” At the two-week mark, he felt alive enough to take a shower and go outside. He’s still easily fatigued, he said, but he’s on the mend.

The community has been reeling from the death of one if its dancers, Pete Andersen, who was diagnosed with coronavirus. He lived in Everett, was president of the Whirlybirds in Lynnwood and often could be seen dancing with his daughter. He was in his 40s when he died.

Facebook posts from family suggest Andersen first went to EvergreenHealth Medical Center in Kirkland with pneumonia in February. The hospital has been at the epicenter of the coronavirus epidemic in the United States. On Friday, hospital officials reported 23 patients had died of COVID-19, most of them coming from the nearby Life Care Center nursing home. Eighty-seven patients went to the hospital with the disease.

In Facebook posts, family members expressed optimism, at first, that Andersen would recover. As the days went by, though, his condition worsened. Eventually he tested positive for the coronavirus. By Feb. 29, he was moved to another room. Visitation was limited to one person at a time, and that person would have to wear a respirator, a family member wrote.

On March 2, Andersen died, becoming the first coronavirus-related fatality from Snohomish County. Afterward, Everett’s Mariner High School was closed down because Andersen had been in “close contact” with a student, and the family was quarantined.

Condolences and well wishes poured in through an online fundraiser for the family. By Friday afternoon, people had donated nearly $28,000 to help pay for moving expenses, memorial services and bills.

Family members could not be reached.

Andersen’s infection is believed to be an instance of community transmission, the Snohomish Health District said, meaning he didn’t have a travel history related to the health crisis’ origins in Wuhan, China.

Trevor Bedford, a genetics and infectious disease expert at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, traced the community transmission back to the first reported case of coronavirus in the U.S. — a 35-year-old Snohomish County man who traveled to Wuhan and was hospitalized at Providence Regional Medical Center Everett. In a series of Twitter posts, Bedford wrote that the first COVID-19 case, reported on Jan. 19, had genetic similarities with Andersen’s.

In his initial findings, Bedford concluded it was highly unlikely the two weren’t related. That means despite health officials’ attempts to track everyone who may have come into contact with the Snohomish County man, the virus had quietly spread through the region, undetected and uncontained.

Those in the square dance community couldn’t pinpoint when or where COVID-19 might have arrived. Because symptoms can take a couple of weeks to reveal themselves, there would be ample time for a virus to spread unnoticed. And for much of February, when dancers started to become sick, little testing was done in the state.

That’s especially concerning for prolific square dancers like 78-year-old Judy Corning, who attend events night after night after night. She said she sometimes goes out every day of the week and travels as far south as Olympia and as far north as Bellingham. She’ll go farther for bigger events, like the National Square Dance Convention, set to take place in Spokane in June.

This past month, Corning’s been sick. She said she stopped dancing in early February, when she “felt off.”

One Sunday, she walked down the stairs of her home and suddenly couldn’t breathe.

“I was huffing and puffing and laying on the floor,” Corning said.

Paramedics took her to the hospital. There, someone took a swab sample to be tested. It was weeks before she found out she had COVID-19, she said. By then, her symptoms were long gone.

Corning said she laughed in disbelief when she got the call. She didn’t have all of the symptoms. She didn’t have a fever — which has become the hallmark of those who typically get testing. Just trouble breathing. She had no idea she could have had the coronavirus.

The Shoreline woman expressed concern it took so long to learn she carried a highly contagious disease.

“We could’ve gone out dancing and infected more people,” she said, referring to herself and her husband. He recently was tested for the coronavirus but they’re still awaiting results.

Corning was thankful she hasn’t been dancing since that week she started feeling off. But she’s not sure how many people she could have exposed to the virus before then.

Lately, Corning has come down with pneumonia and has been quarantined at her home. She said she misses square dancing terribly. She misses the friendliness and the exercise involved.

“It keeps you young,” Corning said. “I’m 78 and going strong.”

She’s not the only one who misses dancing. Shortly after Andersen’s death, clubs began canceling events en masse, citing recommendations from health officials and the number of participants who have become sick.

Many events will likely not take place for the foreseeable future. On Wednesday, King and Snohomish counties put restrictions on gatherings of any size in response to Gov. Jay Inslee’s ban of events exceeding 250 people. On Friday, Inslee extended that ban to the whole state.

Some people in the square dancing community are growing anxious over the cancellations, Cole said. There’s an emotional impact, he explained, when people aren’t able to participate in the activities they’ve relied on so long for socializing.

When the dancing does happen again, participants might have to consider changing their habits. Dancers will have to think twice about hugging when they first greet each other, for example.

“I think some of the huggy, touchy-feely stuff has got to go,” Cole said.

For her part, Corning said, she understands the need to be careful. She wants to dance, but she’ll wait for the pandemic to blow over — hopefully soon.

“I will wait my turn,” she said. “I will be patient, and sooner or later we will get back to dancing.”

Zachariah Bryan: 425-339-3431; zbryan@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @zachariahtb.

As of Saturday

• At least 642 people are infected with the coronavirus in Washington (including 40 fatalities).

• There are 154 people in Snohomish County (including 4 fatalities) who have been confirmed or presumed positive, and six cases are probable. Thirty people are hospitalized and 42 people have recovered. Eighteen Snohomish County cases are related in some way to the Life Care Center nursing home in Kirkland — presumably patients, employees or visitors. Thirteen cases are related in some way to the Josephine Caring Community in Stanwood.

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