Leading researcher who defied federal government to test for COVID reflects on anniversary

Dr. Helen Chu of UW Medicine and the Brotman Baty Institute has been leading a team of researchers for the Seattle Flu Study for the last few years.

When KIRO 7 spoke to her in 2019, we’d never heard of COVID, yet she was eerily prophetic when she talked about the importance of their work.

“Is it the normal flu or is it a new flu that can cause quite a lot of disease in a population that’s not immune to it?” Dr. Chu said in 2019.

When she learned that the first coronavirus patient was diagnosed in Snohomish County, she knew she could help. Through her work with the Seattle Flu Study, she could detect if the virus was spreading in the area. But she ran into a lot of federal red tape. And the clock was ticking to try gain control.

“When we last spoke to them (feds), they went ahead and gave us their blessing to go ahead and start testing. But really with the understanding that we could test but we’re not permitted to go back and let the person know they were positive,” Dr. Chu recounted.

Ultimately, when her team found a positive case, she defied the federal government.

“Because we were worried. We were worried because it was a kid and we were worried about what might happen if we didn’t tell them. What if they were really sick, what if they were spreading it in the community, all of these things and we felt like we had to do something. So that’s where we broke the rules,” she explained.

KIRO 7 asked if she had any regrets looking back.

“I don’t,” she answered. “It had been here for six weeks at the time. I think had we not known, it probably would have spread more.”

The Lieutenant Governor recently recognized her as Washingtonian of the Year.

She’s even been called a hero but she dismisses that notion.

“I’m an infectious disease doctor. I’m a public health researcher. I think all of us who do science and research and public health would have made this decision. It was the right decision at the time,” Dr. Chu said.

She credits her team for their work in the Seattle Flu Study which has now pivoted to testing for COVID.

She’s not slowed in her groundbreaking work. A year in, she says there’s still a lot more to do.

Vaccines were created in record speed, but the rollout’s been rocky, to say to the least.

She got her first dose at the end of the year and just got her second shot the other day.

“I had a pretty severe reaction to my second dose. I developed fevers, very high fevers, chills, joint pain, muscle aches and I was completely out of commission for about 36 hours. And then suddenly I just came back,” she described.

She was surprised. But she’s sharing her experience so people can be aware and make the appropriate plans, not to scare people from getting their shots when it’s their turn to get in line. It’s especially critical now that the new highly contagious UK variant has been detected here in Washington and threatens to undo any progress made against the virus.

But Dr. Chu said it’s not too late to turn this around.

“The recipe to turn this around is not that different. It’s really more testing, more contact tracing, more resources given to local and state health departments to be able to do vaccine rollout the way it needs to be done,” she said. “I do think we are heading towards a much more organized national response and once that’s in place, vaccine rollout will accelerate. More people will be vaccinated. As more people are vaccinated, there will be less cases. I think really heading towards a good place.”