OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee on Thursday announced that members of the Washington National Guard will help staff hospitals and testing sites across the state, as the health care system struggles with surging COVID-19 caseloads.
Guard members will be sent to hospitals in Everett, Spokane, Wenatchee and Yakima to take over nonmedical tasks to help relieve crowded emergency rooms.
Others will be sent to hospitals in Olympia, Richland, Tacoma and Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center to set up testing locations outside the facilities. Federal testing sites are also being set up in King and Snohomish counties.
And, in an echo of the early months of the pandemic, Inslee ordered a four-week pause on nonemergency procedures at hospitals and encouraged retired health care workers to consider helping out.
In a news conference Thursday afternoon, the governor described rising case and infection rates as “extremely concerning.”
While some states are starting to see a peak in cases due to the hypercontagious omicron variant, Washington’s latest peak is expected to be still ahead.
“We do believe that we’re in for several weeks of very hard slogging in Washington state, where all of us have to pitch in together,” the governor said, adding later: “And the hospitalization rates will continue to go up, even after the infection rates peak.”
The governor is asking for help from anyone who can assist with vaccinations, testing or work at hospitals or other facilities. Those interested can sign up at WAServ.org.
Additionally, Inslee announced several measures to help long-term care facilities like nursing homes — such as sending more staff — to make sure patients who are discharged from hospitals will have somewhere to go.
The slew of emergency orders comes as COVID hospitalizations in Washington have hit a record for the entire pandemic, hospital officials said Thursday.
The past week saw an average of roughly 1,800 hospitalizations for the virus, topping the previous high of about 1,700 hospitalizations per week in mid-September. About 80% of patients hospitalized due to COVID are not vaccinated, according to Inslee.
As of Thursday, about 149 patients were on ventilators — a 16% increase over last week.
State health officials Thursday reported 16,659 new coronavirus cases and 40 new deaths. The update brings Washington’s totals to 1,025,322 cases and 10,143 deaths. Those new cases may include up to 800 duplicates, according to state health officials.
A big part of the strain on hospitals is due to problems discharging patients who no longer need acute care. To help long-term care facilities, Inslee announced state officials will help with staffing in places such as nursing homes, by expanding the number of staff on contracts.
The state has added 60 contract workers to care facilities in recent months, and is looking to add 200 more contract staff, he said.
“And that will serve probably about 240 more residents that we can get out of our hospitals,” he said.
Other staff will be sent to help transfer patients to care facilities by performing tasks such as transition planning, finding providers and expediting the processes to determine if someone is financially eligible for a bed.
State officials are also looking to speed up processes to appoint guardians. That will help people who could transfer out of the hospital and go recover at other places if they had a guardianship.
Washington is now the ninth state to deploy its National Guard to hospitals, Maj. Gen. Bret Daugherty said at the news conference. But the state doesn’t have many medical personnel available.
“Here in Washington we have a lot of combat units, we don’t have a lot of medical units,” he said. “And so we just don’t have a lot of medical capability to put out there.”