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‘Difference between life and death’: COVID-19 surge likely leading to increased mortality as patients wait to be transferred

Aug. 25, 2021 Updated Wed., Aug. 25, 2021 at 10:55 p.m.

While no figures exist yet, health officials believe the COVID surge in Washington is likely leading to excess deaths when patients who normally would be able to get care are unable to be transferred to hospitals because there are no beds available.

This is due to the more than 1,300 people being hospitalized for COVID-19 in Washington.

“Hospitals throughout our state are full and at the highest level of occupancy our state has ever seen,” Dr. Steve Mitchell, medical director at the Washington Medical Coordination Center, which is coordinating patient transfers statewide.

Mitchell said one patient recently needed to get from a rural hospital in Eastern Washington to a hospital where they could receive more intensive care. After waiting eight hours for an open bed, the patient died.

The state’s larger hospitals that typically take patients from smaller rural facilities are experiencing incredibly high patient volumes, made worse by the rapid increase of COVID patients. Mitchell said there are long periods when the coordinating center is unable to move patients to larger facilities .

“For time-critical illnesses, that means sometimes the difference between life and death,” he said. “I do believe there is increased mortality from what’s going on in our hospitals.”

Mitchell said the WMCC is moving patients across the state and even out of state if it means they can get into the critical care or intensive care unit their condition requires.

Health officials are asking residents to start masking up immediately, as well as to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Current vaccination and infection levels are still not high enough for the state to reach immunity, said Dr. Scott Lindquist, acting chief science officer at the Department of Health.

As of last week, 71.5% of Washington residents who are eligible are at least partially vaccinated against the virus. The majority of those hospitalized with COVID-19 are unvaccinated, however.

“We all must do our part so things don’t get worse,” said State Secretary of Health Dr. Umair Shah. “People need to be wearing masks and getting vaccinated.”

Lindquist said the surge in COVID-19 cases appears to be flattening instead of accelerating as it has all month.

Hospitalizations continue to be on the rise, however, and show no signs of slowing, he said. Lindquist has requested some modeling around hospital admissions statewide that the department hopes to have later this week.

Shah said he hopes the governor’s recent mask mandate and vaccine requirements will be enough to reverse current trends, but noted that the department is examining all possible options to ensure the state’s health care system is not overrun. He hopes the mask mandate, which went into effect Monday, is effective.

“We’re hopeful that will help slow down this current surge we have,” he said.

A look at local numbers:

The Spokane Regional Health District reported 230 new COVID-19 cases and five additional deaths Wednesday.

There have been 727 deaths due to COVID-19 in Spokane County residents.

There are 197 patients hospitalized with the virus in Spokane hospitals.

The Panhandle Health District confirmed 69 new COVID-19 cases and no additional deaths.

There are 103 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.

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