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‘Misery’ inside Washington hospitals as COVID-19 patients stretch capacity

Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

While Washington state hospitals are faring slightly better than those in North Idaho, capacity is at its tightest point yet during the pandemic.

According to a Sept. 7 count, there are 1,743 COVID-19 patients hospitalized statewide, which is more than hospital census figures recorded in previous COVID waves.

Peg Currie, chief operating officer of Providence hospitals in Spokane, described the scenes inside local ICUs with one word: “misery.”

“There are people up there on oxygen, gasping for breath, that aren’t on a ventilator yet, and every breath exhausts them,” Currie told reporters Monday.

Staffing is a challenge in hospitals not only locally but statewide, as many elective procedures and operations are being canceled to make room for the increasing surge in COVID patients.

Even rural hospitals are peaking with high patient volumes of both COVID and non-COVID patients. And with larger hospitals full, transferring patients is still a time-intensive challenge, if it’s even possible at all.

This means that even for stroke or heart attack patients in rural regions, response times and lack of beds elsewhere could result in a delay of care. The number of patients waiting for care in emergency rooms has skyrocketed locally, Currie said, and transfer lists remain long and challenging to accommodate.

“You see these lists of people who want care from your (hospital), and you have to make them wait – that’s heartbreaking,” Currie said.

Providence has formed patient placement committees to triage patients at most risk for a higher level of care, and decide what smaller hospitals can handle.

Normally, Spokane is the regional medical hub for all of the surrounding smaller hospitals.. But with the current surge in COVID patients, that’s not always possible.

As a result, some rural hospitals are taking transfers from other facilities or holding onto patients for longer than they normally would.

Washington has not declared crisis standards of care, as Idaho has for the Panhandle and north-central Idaho.

Hospital leaders hope Washington doesn’t get to that point.

“The key to that not happening here is for people to get vaccinated,” Cassie Sauer, CEO of the Washington State Hospital Association, said on Monday. “That’s what will stop it.”

So far, 73.9% of eligible Washington residents have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and 67% of those who are eligible are fully vaccinated.

In Spokane County, 60% of the eligible population has received at least one dose of a vaccine, and 50% of the total population has received at least one dose.

Typically, there is an increase in cases following a holiday weekend, and Spokane County Interim Health Officer Francisco Velázquez met with business leaders this week about masking guidance for customers as well as for employees, and encouraging everyone to get vaccinated.

“We already have a significant number of cases, and my hope is that while we celebrated Labor Day weekend we were as cautious and careful as we could be to make sure we don’t have a significant bump (in cases) two to three weeks from now,” Velázquez said, adding that he won’t be surprised if there is one.

Here’s a look at local numbers:

The Spokane Regional Health District reported 353 new cases and three additional deaths on Wednesday.

There have been 771 deaths due to COVID-19 in Spokane County residents.

There are 212 people hospitalized with the virus in Spokane.

The Panhandle Health District confirmed 315 new COVID-19 cases and no additional deaths.

There are 116 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.