Where were you one year ago?
In the past 12 months, the world has been transformed by a global pandemic brought on by the COVID-19 virus. Lives and livelihoods have been lost, daily routines have been reshaped and the trauma of the last year is rolling into the next.
In Federal Way, 108 residents have died due to COVID-19. This time last year, only two deaths had been recorded.
The Mirror spoke with local residents and organizations to gather a glimpse of how their worlds have changed one year into the pandemic.
One year later: A life-threatening battle with COVID-19
One year ago, Federal Way resident Sheri Bebbington didn’t know the last week of March would become an emotional milestone.
Her first symptom of what would turn into a life-threatening COVID-19 infection began on the evening of March 26 – a dry throat leading into an excruciating headache during the night. Bebbington, 58, ended up returning home after attempting to go to work and her symptoms worsened, developing a fever and cough, too.
She received her first COVID-19 test on March 28, 2020, and was confirmed to have the virus on March 30 last year. This marked the beginning of Bebbington’s battle with COVID-19, an 11-day hospital stay and renewed perspective on what it means to live.
The year that followed has represented a lot of reflection, gratitude and compassion, she said.
“I have been humbled by a virus, and I’m never going to forget it.”
Bebbington, 58, is what medical professionals are referring to as a “long hauler” – a patient with lasting symptoms of the virus months later, such as fatigue and insomnia for her. After her hospitalization where she was the first patient enrolled in CHI Franciscan’s clinical drug trial for Remdesivir, a broad-spectrum antiviral drug recently approved for emergency use authorization in the U.S. for patients with severe COVID-19 cases.
After she was released from the hospital on April 14, 2020, Bebbington remained off of work until mid-July. She has lost two-thirds of her hair. She also got into counseling to help her heal emotionally because “the anxiety and all those feelings that go with understanding you are fighting for your life was really haunting for me.”
Bebbington’s husband, Philip, also contracted COVID-19 and has since made a strong recovery after a few months getting back to normal.
“It’s not as nightmare-ish as it was before,” she said. “But living these two weeks, we both have some tensions because it’s still pretty raw.”
A silver lining of the infection, she said, is participating in a Fred Hutch COVID-19 study, which tracks her antibodies and allows her to contribute to the research of the virus. In a full-circle moment in her journey with her job in a local healthcare system, Bebbington now helps coordinate community COVID-19 vaccination clinics in the area. Earlier this month while attending the opening of a vaccination clinic at the Puyallup fairgrounds, Bebbington – to her surprise – was awarded the Washingtonian of the Day by Gov. Jay Inslee after sharing her story with him.
The journey of the past year has been about connectedness and synergy, she said, to life, to others and to herself. The virus has humbled her, encouraged her to live more fully and with more intention in all aspects and all relationships.
In October, Bebbington and her husband took a vacation to Cabo San Lucas. On their final night, Bebbington had booked the couple a sunset sail. When they were boarding the boat, she noticed the vessel was named Synergy.
“That felt like a sign, like it was OK to move on,” she said.
Aside from her lingering symptoms, Bebbington says long term damage, if any, is still a possibility. She received the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine in January (her husband received a Pfizer vaccine).
“I want to be free from it,” she said of the virus. “I don’t want COVID to haunt me for the rest of my life. I don’t want it to be my story, I want it to be something that happened and that I overcame.”
Different from other illnesses where only the patient is dealing with it, the whole world is facing the pandemic and that 24/7 presence makes it “more challenging to somebody who has survived it.”
A year ago, contracting the virus “felt like the Scarlet letter,” she said, but as the virus, and society’s understanding of it, has evolved, so has the seriousness of its consequences.
The holidays this year were hosted with family members outside on the Bebbington’s deck with heat lamps, fire pits and six feet of distance. Every infrequent gathering is always with the virus in mind, and “after everything we experienced, there’s a desire to be together.”
Every person in the world has been impacted by COVID-19, whether you’ve had the virus or not, Bebbington said, your way of life has been impacted.
“As much as I hate this virus, we have to respect it.”
One year later: First responders pave the way for safety
Facing an unprecedented pandemic led to creative solutions when looming concerns about personal protective equipment shortages threatened South King Fire & Rescue, and other departments across the nation.
In April 2020, SKFR firefighter’s on the department’s COVID-19 Task Force developed a protective gown prototype made out of Tyvek material, donated from Federal Way’s Lowe’s Home Improvement store.
SKFR Driver Engineer Jim Wilson made a pattern for the gowns and began sewing by the dozen for department members, in case the need ever arose.
At Station 65, a garage-turned-sewing room is equipped with five sewing machines, rolls of material mounted to the walls, and Wilson’s good pair of scissors in a hidden spot. Surrounded by designs and creations strewn about, Wilson was at the center this time last year.
This prototype became highly sought after. As word of the innovation spread, South King Fire officials shared the gown prototype with more than 70 agencies worldwide.
Looking back at the last year, what stands out is the “creativity and fortitude that people never knew they had,” said Capt. Brad Chaney of SKFR. “They definitely have strengths and are able to withstand pressure, but going through a pandemic, that really shines a light on all the different stress points … people stepped up in big, big ways and found creative ways to find solutions to some of those problems.”
The department offered the county’s first decontamination site for law enforcement officers, their equipment, uniforms and vehicles. New processes were put in place to protect the health of first responders when responding to calls and daily meetings between shift changes have been adapted to safety guidelines, but feel more impersonal in an environment so heavily built on camaraderie, Chaney said.
For many, 2020 was both the worst and the greatest year, Chaney said. There was so much stress and pain, yet just as many moments of resilience for solving “problems we didn’t know existed with solutions we didn’t know were possible.”
One year later: Local restaurant battles with pandemic losses
The losses of the last year are almost immeasurable.
But if Billy McHale’s owner Jim Ross had to quantify it, the cost of multiple state mandated shutdowns, loss of business and months of uncertainty would be about $1.2 million.
Like hundreds of businesses across the state, Ross was forced to cease business in mid-March of last year. The sudden order from Gov. Jay Inslee didn’t allow for preparation time to plan for staff reductions or to deal with a large inventory of food.
“I worked my whole life to earn this restaurant, and in one day and one minute he [Inslee] took that living away from me and chewed up my life savings,” said Ross, who will turn 61 in April.
Pre-pandemic, Ross planned to retire within the next few years. Now, the future holds several more working years in order to financially earn back what was lost.
In the first three weeks of the pandemic, Ross had to layoff his entire staff except for his chef. During that time, Ross and his chef worked 12-14 hour days seven days a week in order to stay afloat. Due to the support of the local community through takeout orders and UberEats deliveries, he coaxed his wife to help with the nightly dinner rush.
Eventually, Ross was able to bring back a skeletal team of staff one by one. With the assistance of a PPE loan, returning staff were paid full wages plus an additional $5 an hour, he said.
When indoor dining with the proper cross-draft of airflow was permitted, the owner removed his restaurant’s front windows and a back door – and encouraged customers to bundle up for their meal.
Billy McHale’s can seat 400 people, so at 25% the restaurant and bar still had an opportunity to serve 100 people at a time. With the state’s recent move into Phase 3, the jump to half capacity helps a bit, but what has been more helpful is the allowance to stay open after midnight, Ross said. As a core venue for Federal Way’s nightlife, Billy McHale’s banks on its late-night crowds.
The most helpful piece of the pandemic puzzle, though, has been the community support.
Grant allocation and a Shop Local campaign from the City of Federal Way coupled with customers who supported Billy McHale’s daily and left large tips.
Ultimately, Ross said, “they [the community] didn’t want the restaurants to fail and go away … If we didn’t have that, we wouldn’t be open right now.”
One year later: Federal Way food bank continues to serve with double the need
Over the course of 2020, the Federal Way Senior Center Food Bank worked tirelessly to provide for the local community.
In 2019, the food bank served 4,500 households and 17,000 individuals.
In 2020 from Jan. through Dec., visitors to the food bank doubled: more than 9,000 households and 37,000 individuals visited the food bank.
Before the pandemic, the FWSC was serving approximately 200-300 meals per week to seniors and veterans, running daily programs, support and social services, facility rentals and the food bank.
Now, amid a pandemic, staff and volunteers have continued to help seniors and veterans with information, community referrals and services, said Shelley Puariea, executive director of the Federal Way Senior Center, Food Bank, and Nutritional Meal Program.
They meet with seniors to help with housing, in home care, healthcare, food resources and more. The food bank remained open throughout 2020 two days a week with volunteers and staff wearing face masks, gloves, social distancing, using hand sanitizer while running the food bank.
Each week, local residents can curbside pick up bakery, dairy, meat, fresh produce, canned or dried goods, and non-food items. As a Food Lifeline Certified Partner Agency in Grocery Rescue, volunteers pickup food seven days a week from Safeway Twin Lakes, Safeway Military, Costco, Fred Meyer, WinCo, Trader Joes and Food Lifeline, Puariea said.
In May 2020, the FWSC applied and received a contract with USDA Farm to Family with Pacific Coast Fruit Company, Cascade Produce and Sysco. This provides 500-1,000 combo boxes of produce, dairy, and meat per week, which volunteers and staff distribute at the book bank or deliver to senior and veteran housing facilities in the Federal Way area.
In addition, the food bank partners with “We Love Our City” nonprofit to help distribute the combo boxes to families, churches, seniors, veterans and individuals.
The pandemic has brought on difficulties in raising enough funds to cover operating expenses as the Federal Way Senior Center relied on facility rentals in previous years as a main form of income.
However, local community partners, businesses, volunteers and individuals are helping the senior center to survive and keep serving.
“Really, the community is coming together, which is what we need to do. I just love that part of it — everybody working together to help,” Puariea previously told the Mirror.
The Federal Way Senior Center is a private nonprofit organization formed in 1974. In 1985, the organization moved to its current property at 4016 S. 352nd Street in Auburn, which was donated by the Lakeland Community Club in unincorporated King County.