The number of patients newly hospitalized with COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, in Washington state is growing faster than at any other time during the pandemic, according to state data and Dr. Kathy Lofy, Washington’s top public health officer.
“We have now exceeded the number of patients being hospitalized each day than we actually saw back in the spring,” Lofy said during a Wednesday media briefing, adding that every region of the state has more COVID-19 patients in the hospital now than ever before.
The number of hospitalizations statewide more than doubled in November, as cases skyrocketed. Daily deaths, on average, also have begun to increase, Lofy said.
The state counted 1,097 COVID-19 patients receiving acute care, as of Dec. 2, meaning that more than 11% of the state’s staffed hospital beds are filled by those patients.
The state counted 1,219 staffed intensive care unit beds across its hospitals. As of Wednesday, 278 of those beds — nearly 23% — were being used by COVID-19 patients.
Hospitals have canceled procedures, banned most visitors and hired some traveling nurses for the surge. Some are now looking at adjusting the ratio of nurses to patients to stretch care.
“We’ve doubled the number of patients in about three weeks. If that keeps happening, there’s not double the same ICU staff available,” said Cassie Sauer, president of the Washington State Hospital Association. “There’s no way you can double the number of staff.”
During the pandemic’s previous surges, health care workers have reused personal protective equipment beyond the recommended lifespan, suffered through layoffs as health systems teetered financially and been affected by outbreaks within their facilities. Some have become sick or died of the coronavirus. Others have been moved to fill new jobs as COVID-19 patients fill hospitals.
Now these workers must face a more fearsome surge of illness, as cases soar from coast to coast. Many say they are tired or burned out. If cases continue on their trajectory, there are few policy measures left to ease the burden. And because the surge is nationwide, there aren’t many extra hands left to help.
Case counts and the proportion of tests that was positive have flattened over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, Lofy said. But because people’s health care-seeking behavior shifts during holiday weeks and Lofy said she was not certain how to interpret the data.
“We know there were a number of people who wanted to get tested to see if they were infected but they didn’t have symptoms,” Lofy said. Others with minor cases of COVID-19 might not have sought testing during the holiday week.
“We just don’t know what that means, given the week is unusual in many ways,” Lofy said.
Sauer said hospitals are better able to provide care for COVID-19 patients than they were in spring, and some research suggests clinical outcomes are improving.
“Treatment is getting better. The length of how long people stay is going down. There are more treatments people can get earlier in their process,” Sauer said.
But Sauer said she has heard people express misconceptions about what that means.
“The death rate is falling, but people hear that and think it’s great. But it’s a rate,” Sauer said. “If the death rate falls in half, and we still have four times as many cases, you’re still going to have more dead people.”