Infectious diseases were all Everett physician Dr. George Diaz had ever wanted to study.
The specialized area of medicine is demanding, he said, but after more than 15 years in the field, the Providence Regional Medical Center doctor can’t imagine doing anything else.
“I feel like this is what I was supposed to do in my life,” he said in an interview Thursday.
A renewed appreciation for his years of training became apparent almost exactly two years ago, when Diaz received a call that confirmed a Snohomish County man in his 30s had tested positive for the mysterious new virus that had emerged from Wuhan, China.
Before he knew it, Diaz had become the doctor in charge of treatment for the first COVID-19 patient in the United States.
Fortunately, hospital staffers said at the time, Providence teams had practiced receiving an Ebola patient weeks before, and isolation procedures were fresh in their minds. When Diaz received the call about the COVID patient, he had also just returned from an infectious diseases conference.
“It was like doing a fire drill, and then having a fire,” he said.
Yet another year has passed trapped in a pandemic, with more highs and lows than many of us can count. Within the second year of COVID, vaccines became widely available to the public, saving lives and reducing severe illness, but also igniting fierce tensions between those who sought the shots and those who won’t. The summer’s wave of the delta variant, which hit the state particularly hard, again overwhelmed hospitals and killed more Washingtonians than any previous wave.
Then, just when daily case counts were falling toward pre-delta levels, a new variant emerged. While research shows omicron infections produce a much milder illness than past variants, its rapid transmissibility is still responsible for a record number of infections and hospitalizations throughout the state.
At the end of the first year of COVID, public health leaders and medical experts remained hopeful about the promise of widespread vaccines and continued teamwork among community members to limit viral spread. While that still exists, now mostly exhaustion remains.
“We really had no idea how long it was going to last or how bad it was going to be,” Diaz said. “Two years out, having more patients than ever in our hospital is pretty disheartening.”
As of Thursday, the Everett hospital was caring for more than 200 COVID patients, up from a previous high of about 138 in December 2020, according to a Providence spokesperson.
“For a facility with 600 beds, (that means) one in three patients have COVID, which is a number that is almost unimaginable,” he said.
Statewide, hospitals were caring for more than 2,300 coronavirus patients as of Thursday, though the number of new hospitalizations is down a bit, according to Cassie Sauer, CEO of the Washington State Hospital Association.
“We’re all crossing our fingers that that’s the beginning of a trend, not just a blip,” Sauer said Thursday morning.
Last week, the state confirmed it had surpassed a million confirmed coronavirus infections since the beginning of the pandemic — about 238,000 in the first year, then 867,000 in the second, reflecting the swift paces of delta and omicron.
More than 5 million Washingtonians, or 71.6% of the eligible population, have been fully vaccinated, though some pockets of the state, particularly in northeastern and southwestern Washington, are reporting that less than 40% of people have received both shots.
Meanwhile, COVID deaths slowly continue to tick up. The state is averaging 30 to 35 COVID deaths per day, a noticeable jump since mid-December, when about 12 to 20 people were dying every day, Sauer said. To date, more than 10,000 Washingtonians have died from COVID.
“I struggle to imagine the grief and heartache that they leave behind,” Sauer said. “There’s a lot about this pandemic that we can repair, but these deaths cannot be undone.”
Then and now
At Providence in Everett, feelings of constant stress are apparent in many hospital staffers, Diaz said. The grueling nature of working in health care now has pushed many of his co-workers to leave the profession — an understandable decision, he said.
But there are still signs of optimism on the horizon, especially in comparison to where we started, Diaz said.
“Omicron is far more contagious than any other variant, so we’ve had to modify how we protect our staff with PPE, but overall the lessons we learned early on are still applicable today,” he said. “We have more effective treatments now, (and) a number of therapeutics that help people”
Remdesivir, an antiviral drug proven to reduce severe COVID infection, was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in late 2020 and in the past year has become widely used in hospitals to treat COVID patients. Monoclonal antibodies are also part of now routine COVID treatment in many health care systems, a supply the state stabilized last fall.
The FDA also approved two antiviral pills in late December, one made by Merck and one by Pfizer, that will likely improve global access to COVID therapy.
“There’s still a lot of learning to do, but we’ve come a long way in treatment,” Diaz said.
Still, high COVID hospitalization numbers, canceled surgeries and difficulties discharging patients continue to wear on staff, he said.
“A major issue for us, and all of Western Washington, is logjams in the hospital,” he said.
Like many other health care systems, Providence is struggling to discharge patients who have recovered from COVID or other illnesses but still need some type of care. Long-term care facilities are often either understaffed or lack enough beds to take discharged patients, so many are stuck in the hospital with nowhere to go.
Diaz said he’s also discouraged at the continued pushback against vaccines and booster shots in many parts of the country.
“I would’ve sort of expected the U.S. to come together and for the common good get everyone vaccinated,” he said. “I figured it would have been something considered patriotic.
“It’s surprising and the most disheartening that those beliefs are having such profound effects on our hospitals.”
Two years ago, no one knew where the pandemic would take us. Today, the uncertainty remains.