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Kootenai Health halts all elective surgeries until January 10; Spokane cases reported Wednesday lowest in a month

Kootenai Health is pausing all inpatient and outpatient elective surgeries starting Thursday through Jan. 10.

The hospital has been slammed with caring for the majority of COVID-19 patients in the Idaho Panhandle. There are currently 76 patients with COVID-19 at Kootenai Health, including 23 patients in the critical care unit.

The rate of COVID-19 tests coming back positive in the Panhandle has hovered above 25% in recent weeks. Earlier this week hospitalizations due to COVID-19 reached a new high of 87 patients.

Kootenai Health made the decision to pause elective surgeries due to the rise in COVID-19 patients needing treatment as well as staffing challenges at the hospitals. The hospital defines elective surgeries as any procedure that can wait four weeks without causing harm to the patient.

“The largest challenge in supporting the hospital is staffing. A team of administrators and physicians reviewed all options and determined thatreducing the surgery schedule would allow the most staff members to be available for redeployment in other areas,” a post on the hospital’s Facebook page says.

The change does not affect outpatient screening procedures like colonoscopies, mammograms or ultrasounds, and the family birth center as well as the emergency room are still open to patients.

The Panhandle Health District confirmed 292 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday. There are 84 Panhandle residents hospitalized with the virus.

As hospitalizations surge, hospitals also have some good news to celebrate as vaccine doses arrive this week and vaccination of the most high-risk health care workers can begin. Kootenai Health expects to receive doses this week.

Providence Health in Spokane has received 3,900 doses of the Pfizer vaccine and on Friday plans to begin vaccinating high-risk health care workers from the emergency department and intensive care unit, as well as hospitalists and respiratory therapists.

The initial supply of doses of the vaccine will not be nearly enough to vaccinate all of the health care workers locally. MultiCare hospitals in Spokane expect to receive their first shipments of the vaccine next week.

Washington has received 31,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine and expects 31,000 more later this week. These doses are going to health care workers who work with COVID-19 patients, residents at long-term care facilities and staff members there. If the Food and Drug Administration approves the Moderna vaccine for emergency use Thursday, Washington health officials expect the state to receive about 120,000 doses initially and more than 180,000 by the end of December.

Thus far, the state has only identified residents eligible in Phase 1A of allocation for the vaccine, but plans for who is eligible in the next phases should be completed in the coming weeks when national recommendations are made and state health officials align their guidelines to that guidance. Due to the limited supply of the vaccine and the severity of the situation in hospitals and congregate facilities, it will be a slow process to vaccinate all residents.

“It will take several months to get everyone vaccinated who wants the vaccine,” Michele Roberts, assistant secretary at the Department of Health, told reporters Wednesday.

In the meantime, while statewide case counts appear to be bending down in the wake of strict gathering prohibitions and precautions, state health leaders urged Washington residents to stay the course.

“If we were to have another surge in COVID-19 activity at our current level of disease, it would result in more hospitalizations and deaths and would likely overwhelm our hospitals,” State Health Officer Dr. Kathy Lofy said.

Daily case counts and hospitalizations have appeared to level off slightly, but with the disease incidence as high as it is, numbers need to decline in order for there to be sustained change.

The Spokane Regional Health District confirmed 131 new cases on Wednesday, the lowest daily number of cases confirmed in more than a month. Spokane County hit the 22,000-case mark on Wednesday.

Hospitalizations for the virus are still quite high with 113 county residents currently hospitalized with the virus. Another resident died from the virus, bringing the total number of deaths from COVID-19 to 314.

State and local health officials warned hospital capacity is still tight, and many hospitals statewide continue to limit or cancel elective surgeries to make room for COVID-19 patients.

Following Gov. Jay Inslee’s gathering guidance, the next few weeks will be critical to keeping another surge at bay.

“We’re pleased that we seem to be bending the curve, but we’ve not yet plateaued,” Secretary of Health John Wiesman said. “For the holidays here it’s incredibly important that people do not gather socially.”

In Spokane County, hospitalizations have not gone down significantly, and Interim Health Officer Dr. Francisco Velázquez said he is still concerned about local hospital capacity. Outbreaks in long-term care facilities and other congregate settings continue locally, but Velázquez said he thinks residents did take Thanksgiving precautions. Local case counts are spiking up and down with consistent averages, he said.

Arielle Dreher's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is primarily funded by the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, with additional support from Report for America and members of the Spokane community. These stories can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.