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Already-stretched local hospitals brace for more COVID-19 hospitalizations as local cases surge

This electron microscope image made available and color-enhanced by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Integrated Research Facility in Fort Detrick, Md., shows Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 virus particles.  (HOGP)

Local hospitals are bracing for another surge of COVID-19 patients with Spokane on Tuesday nearly breaking its record for new daily cases.

The new omicron variant, which is more transmissible than the delta variant, has been confirmed in Spokane and several other counties statewide.

Hospital officials in Spokane County expect COVID hospitalizations to rise this month, following a rise in case counts locally. Spokane County saw its second-highest daily case count of 718 new cases reported on Tuesday. This spike is not due to a backlog, but likely reflects a large amount of people seeking tests on Monday and over the long weekend.

Statewide, coronavirus hospitalizations are already increasing. As of Monday, there were 1,215 COVID patients being treated in hospitals statewide, more than 400 additional COVID patients than there were just a week ago.

Locally, the number of patients hospitalized with the virus has started to tick up again too.

“We expect hospitalizations to rise in the coming weeks in response to holiday gatherings, and this new variant, omicron, which spreads very quickly through communities,” Dr. Dan Getz, chief medical officer of Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center and Holy Family Hospital, told reporters Tuesday.

A rise in hospitalizations for COVID-19 could mean an overwhelmed health care system statewide, likely quicker than imagined.

At Providence hospitals in Spokane, Getz said staffing challenges have been exacerbated by the omicron surge with care staff being exposed to the virus or coming down with COVID-like symptoms, keeping them out of the hospital for upwards of a week.

Additionally, hospitals in Spokane County are still trying to make up for lost time from the delta variant surge. Patients are returning for surgeries and procedures that might require hospital stays or observation afterwards.

The result is a full health care system. Hospital occupancy statewide is more than 91%, but this means some hospitals are at capacity while others have some room.

“What we’re fearful of is if we see start seeing increasing hospitalization rates for COVID, which we’re seeing in certain areas on the East Coast and Midwest, it will be really challenging to care for everyone at the same time,” Getz said.

The region’s lower vaccination rate, as well as lax adherence to public health guidance like wearing masks, will also contribute to hospitalizations, Getz said.

In Spokane County, 58% of the total population has initiated their vaccination series. This could also mean a tougher omicron surge for the region.

“It’s a numbers game: the number of people wearing masks and social distancing will determine how many hospitalizations we will have in the region,” Getz said. “We will likely see a higher percentage of patients hospitalized with the omicron variant than they will see in areas like Seattle where they have better acceptance of the vaccine.”

And while omicron has been reported as more mild than the delta variant, Getz said those who are unvaccinated are still vulnerable to be hospitalized for the virus. Unvaccinated Washington residents of all age groups are more likely to be hospitalized with the virus than vaccinated residents, data from the state health department show.

Getz said he worried about the coming weeks being a “perfect storm.”

“We’re already at a point now where staffing is incredibly challenging, and if we see lots of (employee) ill calls and a high volume of patients, this really could drive the state into crisis standards of care,” Getz said. “I worry most about rural health care centers that rely on larger facilities like Sacred Heart for transferring their patients out. If those facilities have no outlet to transfer really sick patients, it will lead to unnecessary patient death.”

Here’s a look at local numbers

The Spokane Regional Health District reported 718 new COVID-19 cases on Tuesday, the second-highest daily case count recorded during the pandemic in the county.

SRHD also reported two additional deaths; there have been 1,155 deaths due to COVID-19 in Spokane County residents.

There are 78 patients hospitalized with the virus in Spokane.

The Panhandle Health District reported 163 new COVID cases and no additional deaths.

Hospitalizations in the Panhandle are increasing again. There are 80 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.