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Washington hospitals see dip in COVID-19 patients, concerns for future remain

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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. 

As COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations decrease, Washington hospitals are seeing some “elbow room,” but officials are concerned the virus and other factors could lead to low capacity this winter.

Respiratory illnesses, delayed care, staff burnout and difficulty discharging some patients could challenge hospitals still dealing with relatively high COVID-19 numbers, said Taya Briley, Washington State Hospital Association executive vice president, during a press briefing Monday.

“If members of the public want to do something to support our caregivers it is this: don’t get sick, get your COVID vaccine, get your flu immunization, wear your mask, do your routine doctor appointments and take care of your overall health.”

Statewide COVID-19 hospitalization rates decreased from about 14 new admissions per 100,000 people from Sept. 13 to Sept. 19 to 12 per 100,000 the following week.

Cowlitz County recorded 29 new hospitalizations per 100,000 people from Sept. 19 to Sept. 25, down from 36 per 100,000 the previous week.

The county recorded 140 new confirmed cases over the weekend, bringing the total to 11,055 confirmed and 1,314 probable cases. Cowlitz County recorded six new COVID-19 deaths Monday, with 198 total deaths.

Wahkiakum County reported five new COVID-19 cases Monday, bringing the total to 229 with 22 potentially active. The health department considers cases with a positive test result in the last 21 days to be active.

PeaceHealth St. John Medical Center had 30 COVID-19 patients as of Monday morning. After peaking at about 60 COVID-19 inpatients in late August, numbers have dropped, with daily counts hovering between 27 to 32 over the last two weeks.

Randy Querin, PeaceHealth spokesperson, said longer-term projections for the region are encouraging and the hospital is planning its return to normal operations.

“We’re looking forward to that, but on a day-to-day basis we’re not seeing that,” he said. “We’re hopeful that as people continue to mask, social distance and slowly increase vaccinations that those numbers will continue to go down.”

PeaceHealth encourages patients not to delay care because of the pandemic. Over the last 18 months, about 50% or more patients didn’t get their annual mammogram, Querin said. Mammograms and other screenings are important to get on time because delaying could make a life-or-death difference, he said.

Statewide, hospital occupancy is “very, very full” at about 90%, Briley said. Washington facilities were full before the pandemic because the state has one of the lowest numbers of hospital beds per capita in the country, said Beth Zborowski, hospital association spokesperson.

Many hospitals have seen staff vaccination rates increase ahead of the Oct. 18 deadline for the state’s vaccine mandate, Briley said. The potential effects to hospital services would depend on the hospital size and what type of staff leave, she said.

Briley said the association and hospital officials also are concerned about the mandate causing staff shortages in emergency medical services and long-term care facilities. In the past week, some hospitals have seen record-high levels of patients ready to discharge who can’t get a spot in a long-term care facility or other location, she said.

PeaceHealth St. John has an ongoing problem with finding locations to send patients who are difficult to discharge but has not seen a recent increase, Querin said.

“In non-pandemic times it’s a difficult issue and the pandemic made it that much more difficult,” he said. “We rely on having good partnerships with skilled nursing facilities in our community that are able to take patients that don’t need hospital-level care, but need skilled care. If those beds are not available, those patients stay in the hospital and that’s a problem for everybody.”

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