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Omicron surge putting Washington hospitals in the 'worst situation' of the pandemic

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PeaceHealth St. John COVID-19 unit

PeaceHealth St. John Medical Center nurse Tammy Patterson paces a hallway inside the hospital's COVID-19 unit in March 2021. 

Surging COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, coupled with staffing shortages and patient bottlenecks, are stretching Washington hospitals more than ever before, officials said Thursday.

“This is the worst situation hospitals in Washington state have been in compared to any prior point in the pandemic,” Taya Briley, executive vice president of the Washington State Hospital Association, said in a news briefing.

The state has seen a 65% increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations in the past week and among those, a 16% increase of patients on ventilators, Briley said.

Washington recorded 18.8 COVID hospitalizations per 100,000 people from Dec. 29 to Jan. 2. Cowlitz County hospitalizations have remained relatively steady since mid-October, with 17.2 per 100,000 people during the same week. PeaceHealth St. John Medical Center had 26 COVID-19 inpatients as of Thursday morning.

Cowlitz County COVID-19 cases spike past prior peak, likely higher than reported

The omicron-driven surge is worsening the existing staffing shortage and backlog caused by patients who no longer need hospital care, Briley said. However, a state declaration of crisis standards of care is not “imminently on the table,” she said.

In Washington, crisis standards of care can only be declared by the state, not a specific hospital. Crisis standards refer to when health-care systems prioritize resources and deny treatment to one patient to give it to another.

However, western Washington hospitals are routinely using contingency and crisis staffing strategies to deal with shortages, Briley said. This includes canceling nonessential procedures, shifting staff around and allowing staff to come back to work sooner after COVID exposure or infection in accordance with state and federal guidelines.

PeaceHealth St. John has recently implemented its incident command structure to “best prepare for and respond to changes in how we deliver healthcare in our community” as cases increase, according to a hospital statement Thursday.

“The available data continues to suggest that the peak of infections and hospitalizations due to omicron is still ahead of us,” said Randy Querin, hospital spokesperson. “We urge people who may be growing lax about COVID-19 safety protocols to sharpen their focus on the best methods of staying safe — vaccination, masking, hand hygiene, appropriate social distancing, and staying home from work or school if you feel unwell.”

Briley called for swift action from the state to assist understaffed hospitals and to speed up the process of discharging patients who no longer need hospital care but cannot make the decision for themselves.

Gov. Jay Inslee on Thursday announced National Guard members will be sent to hospitals in Everett, Spokane, Wenatchee and Yakima to help with nonmedical tasks. Other Guard members will be sent to Olympia, Tacoma, Richland and Seattle to set up testing locations.

The governor also ordered a four-week pause on nonemergency procedures at hospitals and asked retired health-care workers to consider volunteering.

To help address the backlog of patients waiting to be discharged, Inslee expanded the number of contracted staff available to help at long-term care facilities and the number of staff assessing patients before they can be discharged.

Health officials encourage vaccines, testing as COVID-19 cases rise

Inslee said the state is in for a tough few weeks as cases have yet to peak and the increase in hospitalizations is likely to continue after that point.

Washington surpassed 1 million COVID-19 cases Wednesday and 10,000 deaths Tuesday.

Following the statewide trend of skyrocketing cases, Cowlitz County’s COVID-19 case counts began sharply increasing at the beginning of January.

The county recorded 154 new confirmed and 48 new probable cases Thursday, bringing the total to 16,793. The county recorded two new COVID-19 deaths, with 291 total.

Wahkiakum County reported four new cases Thursday, bringing the total to 280, with 15 potentially active. The county health department considers cases with a positive test result in the last 21 days to be potentially active.

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