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Hospital capacity is tight as a new COVID-19 surge takes off in Spokane, with some facilities postponing nonemergency surgeries

Some hospitals are delaying planned procedures as the surging number of coronavirus patients in the Inland Northwest and the rest of the state taxes an already drained health system.

It isn’t the first time during the pandemic area hospitals have had to make those tough calls, but this time it follows a relative calm in cases that’s recently been upended.

Hospitals evaluate staffing every day, and capacity changes hour by hour. Hospitals use surge plans to expand care when necessary, like during the winter surge of COVID-19.

On Thursday, MultiCare hospitals had to postpone some scheduled, nonemergency surgeries due to the increasing number of patients.

“We will continue to evaluate our patient volume on a daily basis,” MultiCare spokesman Kevin Maloney said in a statement.

Providence hospitals in Spokane are not currently delaying elective procedures.

After a month of steady virus hospitalizations in the Inland Northwest, the number of COVID-19 patients needing treatment in local hospitals began to increase in the past two weeks.

This week, the number of hospitalizations jumped again, from 55 COVID patients in Spokane hospitals on Monday to 85 by Wednesday.

On Monday, 14 people were admitted to Spokane County hospitals with the virus, the highest daily number of COVID hospital admissions since April 21, according to data from the Spokane Regional Health District.

The rise in hospitalizations has coincided with the growing number of cases and increasing transmission of the virus in Spokane County as the delta variant circulates. While earlier in the summer it was common to see daily case numbers of under a hundred – and sometimes only a few dozen – the county has seen consistent triple-digit new daily cases recently, including nearly 300 on Wednesday alone.

Interim Health Officer Dr. Francisco Velázquez told reporters there is a lot of triage happening in local emergency departments to make sure intensive care units have enough room to treat COVID patients.

“Our hospitals are doing a great job in managing that,” Velázquez said.

The issue in Washington and Idaho is that hospital capacity was already tight before the most recent COVID surge. Summer usually brings more trauma cases to hospitals from activity-related accidents, and hospitals have been running near capacity.

Statewide, ICU capacity in Washington is running at 84%, with just 12% of those patients having COVID-19. Hospital admissions for COVID-19 have increased in all age groups, but the steepest increase in rate of hospitalization in Washington is 40- to 59-year-olds.

As of Wednesday, Spokane hospitals reported their capacity at 87.4%, and COVID patients make up just 7.8% of the patient census. The total ICU occupancy rate is 92.7% in Spokane County, as of Wednesday, according to data from the health district.

The majority of people who are hospitalized for the virus have not been vaccinated. From February to July 24, 96% of people hospitalized statewide with the virus were not vaccinated, according to data from the Department of Health.

In Spokane County, just 47% of the total population has received at least one dose of a vaccine, and 55.4% of residents who are eligible to get vaccinated have received at least one dose.

There are outbreaks at some long-term care facilities, including the Spokane Veterans Home, where one resident died recently, and two more residents tested positive on Wednesday. The outbreak there has led to 10 residents testing positive, along with four staff members.

With the more transmissible delta variant circulating, health officials are asking anyone who has not been vaccinated to get the vaccine. Additionally, it’s now believed everyone might be able to spread the delta variant, regardless of vaccination status, which is why masks are recommended in crowded or public indoor settings regardless of your vaccination status.

To find a COVID-19 vaccine, visit the state’s vaccine locator or call (833) VAX-HELP to find a dose close to you.

A look at local numbers:

The Spokane Regional Health District reported 174 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday and two additional deaths.

There have been 688 deaths due to COVID-19 in Spokane County residents.

There are 85 people hospitalized with the virus in Spokane.

The Panhandle Health District reported 111 new cases and two additional deaths on Thursday.

There have been 335 deaths due to COVID-19 in Panhandle residents.

There are now 49 Panhandle residents hospitalized with the virus.

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.