The coronavirus pandemic continues to hammer Washington communities, filling hospitals at an “alarming” rate and straining health care workers particularly concerned about pregnant and unvaccinated patients, state hospital leaders said Monday.
At the Washington State Hospital Association’s briefing a little over a week ago, hospital leaders said they had seen more cases than ever and hoped infections were beginning to level off. On Monday morning, association CEO Cassie Sauer confirmed the news has only worsened.
As of Monday morning, the state’s hospitals and health care centers were treating 1,570 COVID-19 patients throughout Washington, she said. Of those, 188 are on ventilators. Eleven days ago, the hospital association had counted 1,240 patients with 152 on ventilators.
“It’s an enormous stress on a health care system to have this many patients with a single diagnosis,” she said. “This doesn’t happen. … It’s very, very alarming.”
As of last week, the state counted 550,988 total infections and 6,507 total deaths, according to the state’s Department of Health. About 31.4% of Washington’s intensive care units are filled with COVID-19 patients.
According to the state’s last situation report in early August, deaths had remained fairly flat since late March, with the seven-day rolling average declining from a peak of 32 in January to five near the end of March. At the end of July, Washington saw about six deaths per day. On Monday, however, state hospital leaders said they’ve seen an uptick in deaths.
Since February, residents 12 and older who weren’t fully vaccinated made up about 93% of COVID-19 cases, 94% of hospitalizations and 92% of deaths in the state, according to DOH.
“We have this sense at the hospital association that the public generally thinks things are more back to normal, that people are going about having parties, going to fairs, Labor Day events,” she said. “We’re just real worried that the public perception of where we are does not match what’s happening in hospitals.”
For the first time during the pandemic, hospitals are also seeing significant numbers of sick pregnant patients, Dr. Tanya Sorensen, the executive medical director of women’s health at Swedish Health Services, said Monday. She noted that pregnant patients are generally less likely to be vaccinated.
“We’re seeing ICU admissions, maternal deaths, babies born prematurely either to help the mother breathe or rescue the baby,” she said. “It’s really heartbreaking. … Pregnant women need to be vaccinated.”
Sorensen said there are “no reasons” those who are pregnant should not be vaccinated, dismissing rumors that the shots cause infertility or infect people with the virus. She added that there’s been evidence of COVID-19 antibodies in breast milk, meaning the vaccine could protect breastfeeding infants.
While infection rates among children remain low in comparison, the number of younger COVID-19 patients is also increasing, Dr. Dave Carlson, chief physician officer at MultiCare Health System — which provides care for the greater Pierce County area and Spokane — said during the Monday news conference.
“Kids are getting sick and they’re going to get sicker,” he said. “And our numbers aren’t massive right now, but I am very worried that that could shift if you look at some of the experiences of the children’s hospitals in other states.”
As of Monday, MultiCare’s pediatric hospital was treating five children with COVID-19, including one in its neonatal unit, Carlson said.
“Throughout the course of this until the delta variant arrived, it was rare to have a patient in our pediatric hospital with COVID,” he said. “I saw a couple, but it was rare, and never in our neonatal units.”
The state’s rural communities are seeing similar trends.
Mike Glenn, CEO of Jefferson Healthcare — a 25-bed critical-access hospital in Port Townsend — said during the Monday briefing that this past weekend, the health care system hit its all-time high for inpatient COVID-19 patients and has suspended all its elective procedures for the foreseeable future.
The load is “manageable but, given the existing staffing crises, continues to place a challenge on us particularly as we look toward this week not knowing what to expect,” Glenn said.
A large part of the staffing crunch, the Monday panelists said, comes from difficulties discharging patients who no longer need to be hospitalized. Because other care facilities, like nursing homes or assisted living centers, are also short staffed, they’re largely unable to take patients in, Carlson said.
“The challenge that we have as a hospital is you cannot say no,” Carlson said. “You can’t not take a patient when they come to the emergency room and need care and you can’t discharge them until there’s a place that they can go.”
He continued, “So we are, on both the front end and the back end, the solution of last resort. And it’s failing us right now.”
At MultiCare, Carlson said some outpatient staffers, particularly nurse practitioners, are now coming in to help staff nursing units. Surgeons are helping out with hospice care since elective surgeries have been canceled, and surgical staffers are being deployed in other units. Several hundred volunteers are also being assigned around the facilities to help wherever they can, from delivering meals to handling specimens, Carlson said.
“It’s a staffing issue more than it is a physical capacity issue,” he said.
With Labor Day weekend and the return of an in-person Washington State Fair on the horizon, health officials are concerned about the possibility of outbreaks and urged people to be “incredibly cautious” of going to mass gatherings.
Infections have surged during past holiday weekends. About 1½ weeks after the Fourth of July, the COVID-19 curve in the United States began to rise again after months of decline, with health experts pointing fingers at the delta variant, lagging vaccination rates and holiday weekend gatherings. Infections also soared after Thanksgiving last year, though the country generally avoided similar scenarios following Christmas and New Year’s.
“We are just going to keep doing our best,” Dr. Mark Johnson, infectious disease specialist at Confluence Health in Wenatchee, said Monday. “But we’re exhausted. We are really low on staff with critical staffing shortages, we intermittently are not able to accept transfers, … we curtailed elective cases. The health care system is really struggling.”