Seattle photographer Ted Warren and reporter Gene Johnson gained the trust of family members at a Seattle-area nursing home where more than two dozen residents have died from COVID-19. The end result was a gripping story of the fear and isolation in the facility that underscored the devastation the virus can cause.
The Life Care Center in Kirkland, Washington, has emerged as the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States. At least 35 coronavirus deaths have been linked to the facility, and more than half of those inside have tested positive, leaving the remaining residents in a sort of purgatory that has anguished their relatives.
Warren’s efforts since the outbreak hit the Seattle area have been inexhaustible. He’s rushed from a government-run “quarantine hotel” to a drive-through testing facility and shot exclusive images of the first U.S. patients in a vaccine trial. In between, he’s made haunting images of empty bars, store shelves and Seattle landmarks like the Space Needle.
But much of his time over the past two-plus weeks has been spent outside Life Care, where he has documented in heartrending photos how people have tried to communicate with mothers, fathers and loved ones through windows because they are no longer allowed inside. While Seattle reporter Gene Johnson was self-quarantined and working from home due to his daughter’s fever (she’s fine), Warren found an ideal subject for conveying this desperation in the story of 86-year-old Chuck Sedlacek.
Sedlacek arrived at Life Care for physical therapy in mid-February – just in time for the outbreak. He contracted the coronavirus and likely passed it to his son, Scott, before the nursing home restricted visitors. The nursing home has since been blanketed by news cameras, making it difficult to break new ground, but after Scott Sedlacek spoke with Warren and a few local TV news cameras, Warren got his number. He passed it along to Johnson, who fleshed out the family’s sad tale in a series of phone interviews. The resulting story compellingly detailed the isolation and anguish faced by nursing home residents and their families when the coronavirus gets inside – a feeling of helplessness many more are likely to experience as the disease spreads across the country.
“He’s an inmate as much as he is a patient,” said Scott Sedlacek. “We all love and really care about our dad, and we are absolutely scared. Loneliness kills a lot of people, too. We think this is a license for death.”
Warren’s perseverance didn’t end there, though: He stayed late at the facility, scoring indelible photos of a nurse tending to Chuck Sedlacek in his room.
The text, photo and video package showed how trying the COVID-19 situation is, and will continue to be, for the foreseeable future. Executive Editor Sally Buzbee wrote Ted and Gene: “A really important and terribly sad and stressful story.” Added Managing Editor Brian Carovillano: “I have looked at Ted’s window images so many times these past few days to remind myself of what this is all about. This story harnesses that same power in a different format. Beautiful work.”
For compelling work that conveys the frustration and despair of families coping with the coronavirus at a facility in the glare of the media spotlight, Warren and Johnson earn this week’s Best of the States award.