Washington is facing its own COVID-19 crisis and has little capacity to help neighboring Idaho deal with an overwhelming surge of cases driven by unvaccinated people, state hospital executives and doctors said Monday.
Taya Briley, executive vice president of the Washington State Hospital Association, called the situation "very sobering" during a media briefing, saying Washington faces its worst COVID wave since the pandemic began — even before big recent events like fall fairs and a return to school.
Hospitals are canceling necessary surgeries and taking longer to deal with heart attacks and strokes because COVID patients are taking up so many beds. Nearly 1,700 patients are hospitalized with COVID, up from 350 in June and early July before the delta variant's spread among the unvaccinated drove the spike, Briley said.
More than 95% of hospitalized patients are unvaccinated — a staggering amount of unnecessary suffering, Briley said. Some 260 patients are on ventilators.
"When you walk down a hall that is full of COVID patients, it becomes very real," Briley said. "These patients cannot catch their breath. ... They are, in effect, drowning. It's horrible for the patients and it's also something that causes horrible anguish for our staff."
About two-thirds of Washington residents age 12 and older had been fully vaccinated as of last week, and 74% have received at least one dose, according to Washington Department of Health data.
In conservative northern Idaho, only about 4 in 10 eligible residents are fully vaccinated. Hospitals there are so packed that authorities announced last week facilities would be allowed to ration care, potentially giving life-saving care to some patients at the expense of others.
Hospitals there have sent patients to hospitals in Washington, particularly in Spokane, though how many is not clear. The New York Times reported Monday that as of last week, Providence Sacred Heart in Spokane had patients from Idaho taking up 29 beds.
Briley said that while it's normal for eastern Washington hospitals to treat patients from Idaho and vice versa, the influx of COVID patients had caused "some ripple effect" in western Washington.
"We are keeping our head above water, but barely," said Dr. Christopher Baliga, an infectious disease specialist at Seattle's Virginia Mason hospital. "Our capacity to absorb overwhelmed patients from other states is severely limited."
Many Washington hospitals are having to transport patients farther away than usual to find them bed space, tying up ambulances for longer periods and making them less accessible when they're needed. Cascade Medical Center in Leavenworth twice recently had to airlift patients — an expensive option — because no ambulances were otherwise available, said Diane Blake, the hospital's chief executive.
And at Providence St. Peter hospital in Olympia and Centralia Hospital, both in southwestern Washington, officials have set up "alternative care sites" in hallways and conference rooms because the emergency departments have been overwhelmed, Darin Goss, the CEO of Providence's southwest service area, told reporters.
Those two hospitals had 82 COVID patients occupying beds Monday. Of the 23 in critical care, 21 were not fully vaccinated, Goss said.
Other potential challenges loom. Flu season is approaching. And Gov. Jay Inslee's mandate that state workers and health care professionals be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18 could result in some hospital workers quitting.
There is no statewide data on what percentage of health care workers are vaccinated, Briley said, and the rate at individual hospitals varies widely — from 90% or more at some to just 30-40% at others, especially in more rural or conservative areas.
The vaccine mandate has prompted many reluctant health care workers to get their shots, she said, but hospitals expect some staff to resign — a development the overwhelmed facilities can ill afford.
Monday was the last day workers could receive a first shot of the two-dose Pfizer vaccine in time for the Oct. 18 deadline for full vaccination. Oct. 4 marks the deadline for the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.