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Washington leaders try to shore up hospital staffing shortages with federal requests

Dr. Umair Shah, the Washington state Secretary of Health, talks with media after touring the mass vaccination site at the Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena in February 2021. Shah said federal funding is important to continue a local response to the pandemic.  (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)

State health officials are asking for backup for Washington’s fatigued health care workers.

The problem is, Washington is not the only state that needs support.

“Our request is at a time when there are other states across the system with issues and concerns, so the federal cache is stressed and strained,” State Secretary of Health Dr. Umair Shah told The Spokesman Review.

Earlier this week, Shah asked the federal Department of Health and Human Services for medical staffing support as many hospitals in the state continue to operate at stretched capacity and have canceled elective and non-urgent procedures.

The state Department of Health has already asked the General Services Administration for connections to federal contractors that could help staff the state’s facilities, but those workers will need to be paid directly by the hospitals , Shah said.

The state request to GSA was for more than 1,200 workers, but the likelihood of that many nurses, respiratory therapists and support staff being available is low.

“We’ll likely get far less than that number; we don’t know what that will look like, but we will continue to do everything we can,” Shah said.

There should be an update on these additional staffing resources either late this week or early next week. In the meantime, Shah said, it was important for the state to request federal support, especially for hospitals and other health care settings that cannot afford to hire staff with their own funds.

Staffing shortages in health care existed before the pandemic, but COVID-19 accelerated burnout and staff departure.

Dr. Dan Getz, chief medical officer at Providence Spokane, said there has been more staff turnover in hospitals in the last year compared to previous years. While Providence could not provide an exact number, Getz described being a health care worker right now as like being in the Bill Murray movie “Groundhog Day”.

At MultiCare hospitals, the number of open positions might be higher due to more staff leaving health care because of the pandemic.

The pandemic has been going on for a year and a half, and that prolonged stress and fatigue to health care workers is leading to burnout and less staff to take care of the largest surge of COVID patients in the state .

“It’s the burnout over time that’s cumulative, and the fifth wave has made it harder,” Shah said. “We all thought it would get harder during the winter months, but what caught everybody off-guard is that it happened in the late summer and fall – and we haven’t even hit that winter peak.”

With limited staff and more patients to care for, entire surgical staffs and nurses who work in different care settings are being diverted to COVID units. This shift has led to delays of elective and non-emergent surgeries and procedures in Spokane area hospitals.

State projections show that the rest of 2021 could go one of two directions: a steady decline of COVID hospitalizations, or a decline and then subsequent increase, bringing another winter surge.

While the statewide vaccination rate might look promising, it’s not a good indicator of each county or community in the state. Some communities, especially in central and eastern Washington, are still predominantly unvaccinated, leaving large parts of the state susceptible to surges.

Earlier this month, more than 1,700 patients were hospitalized for COVID-19 statewide. That number has dropped to about 1,605 as of Sept. 21, but that’s not a dramatic enough decline.

Shah said he is concerned hospitalizations won’t decrease by as much as they need to, especially with the high number of hospitalizations posted in the past month statewide. Shah said the hospitalizations need to come down to the low points seen earlier this year.

All of the state’s staffing requests were made without projections of how the government vaccine mandate for some workers could impact staffing in health care settings statewide. Shah said the state won’t know the impact until we get there, specifically to Oct. 4, the last day when workers could get the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine in time to be considered fully vaccinated by Oct. 18.

Getz said vaccine rates have increased recently in several departments, but Providence will not release caregiver vaccine percentages.

MultiCare hospitals are waiting to see the full impact of the mandate once employees submit documentation by the Oct. 18 deadline.

Gov. Jay Inslee told reporters Thursday he did not think the vaccine mandate would result in further staffing shortages in health care facilities.

In the long run, the mandate will end up helping hospitals because less staff will be getting sick from COVID-19, he said.

“It is the COVID virus that is hollowing out these hospitals,” Inslee said.

Here’s a look at local numbers:

The Spokane Regional Health District reported 436 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday and one additional death.

There have been 828 deaths due to COVID-19 in Spokane County residents.

There are 214 COVID patients in Spokane hospitals.

The Panhandle Health District confirmed 164 new cases and no additional deaths.

There are 118 Panhandle residents hospitalized with the virus.

S-R reporter Laurel Demkovich contributed to this report.

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.