The COVID-19 vaccine campaign in northeastern Washington started with a road trip.
About a year ago on a snowy winter night, Dr. Sam Artzis and Aaron Edwards, CEO of Ferry County Hospital, drove to Tonasket to get extra Pfizer vaccine doses at the hospital there.
The plan was to divide and spread the extra doses throughout the Tri-County region (Ferry, Stevens and Pend Oreille counties) to everyone who was eligible at that time for vaccination. Residents at long-term care facilities, nursing homes and health care workers were all on that list.
Ferry County Hospital had the freezer for storage, and Artzis as well as many other public health and health care employees would shuttle doses from Republic to Stevens and Pend Oreille counties in the first weeks vaccines were available.
The public health team did the math on a big whiteboard. Where were the eligible residents in the region? How would they split hundreds of first doses?
“We could not have done that without Sam’s guidance, and it worked out really, really well – getting things to people very quickly,” said Matt Schanz, administrator at Northeast Tri-County Health.
Artzis wears many health care hats. He is the health officer of the Northeast Tri-County region. He is an emergency room physician at the hospital in Republic a few days a week. He is the medical director for emergency transports in Stevens and Ferry counties.
The last two years have been anything but easy for Artzis, who credits the small but mighty team at the health district for keeping him going. His many health care roles in the Northeast Tri-County region made the coordination of important functions like outbreak strike teams and vaccine distribution easier.
The physician has encountered the virus from many angles. He has treated critically ill patients with the virus in the emergency room in Republic, gone to people’s homes to offer treatment and support, and has vaccinated nursing home residents.
Artzis does not shy from the emotional toll the virus has taken on him, his team and the communities. He’s responded to COVID-19 outbreaks, like in Republic last spring and at the Buena Vista long-term care facility in Colville, which occurred last December just before vaccines arrived. He called that experience traumatic.
“I’ve never been associated with so much death in my career,” Artzis said, “and to have people so apathetic to it, I’ll be honest, it’s been pretty hard.”
The efforts of public health, health care and hospital staff in the Northeast Tri-County Region, the least-vaccinated region in the state, have saved many lives. This drive has led Artzis to push for vaccines, treatment and care for community members.
In April, a weekend of events in Republic led to a massive superspreader event. Artzis knew the small, critical access hospital where he works could not handle the resulting hospitalizations.
He worked quickly with hospital, public health and Department of Health teams to go directly to people who tested positive instead of waiting for them to show up at the hospital. Teams would check patient’s vital signs or even administer monoclonal antibodies in their homes, trying to prevent hospital overloading.
He recalled one man who likely would have died a few days later had they not arrived to assess his conditions, order him an ambulance and get him hospitalized. Some people don’t trust public health or the medical system to take care of them, but when Artzis or another provider knocks on the door, they have the opportunity to change that perception.
“I think several lives were saved of people who would have died at home,” Artzis said.
The strike-team model developed during the Republic outbreak would continue to serve the region well as new variants mutated this past year.
“We would have been in far worse shape if we hadn’t taken that model and implemented it more broadly,” Schanz said.
Less than half of the total population of all three counties in Northeast Washington have received at least one vaccine dose.
As vaccines became available in 2021, misinformation continued to spread, leading to a deeply divided community about vaccinations. This has made public health and health care providers’ jobs even more difficult.
“Some people are flat-out mean about this, and he takes it in stride and still will offer care to them, which is pretty amazing to bury that frustration he probably has and keep on keeping on,” Edwards, at Ferry County Hospital, said of Artzis.
While Artzis knows he won’t change everyone’s mind about the virus or vaccines, he said others with questions about safety or numbers know they can rely on him to provide the unfiltered truth from both inside the hospital walls and the data at the health district. With omicron on the way, Artzis and the team are buckling down for another possible surge. For those who have yet to get vaccinated, Artzis recommends it. The people he sees in the hospital who are sick and dying are unvaccinated, he said. A booster dose, he added, is what will get people through with less severe illness.
The state’s health care system is already quite full and capacity is a concern in the coming months, especially with hospitals trying to catch up on surgeries and procedures delayed due to the most recent delta variant wave.
“We’re at a lull in our delta surge, and looking at omicron in the next couple weeks, we can’t get a break,” Artzis said.
Ultimately, the health officer is immensely grateful for his counterpart, Schanz, as well as the team at the health district and health care facilities throughout the region. Their drive and energy, Artzis said, have kept him going.
“Seeing others persevere gives me energy to do the same,” he said.
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