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Rural hospitals in northeast Washington are struggling to transfer patients for care

UPDATED: Fri., Jan. 7, 2022

The Spokane Regional Health District is pictured.   (JESSE TINSLEY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
The Spokane Regional Health District is pictured.  (JESSE TINSLEY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

The Spokane Regional Health District reported 852 new COVID-19 cases and five deaths on Friday. This is the highest daily case count reported for Spokane County during the entire pandemic.

The numbers underscore struggles across the state as more and more people are sick.

Rural hospitals in the Inland Northwest, for example, are now struggling to transfer patients to larger hospitals, including those in Spokane, where emergency department are full.

Many hospitals in the Inland Northwest are having to board patients, care for them or keep them in the emergency department, until a bed opens up in their hospital to treat them.

Transferring patients for critical conditions, not COVID-19, from rural hospitals to larger hospitals is incredibly challenging, Northeast Tri-County Health Officer Sam Artzis said on Friday.

Smaller hospitals can stabilize patients before sending them on for more intensive care they cannot provide, but the crunch on hospital space and limited staffing means these hospitals have to keep patients longer than they are accustomed.

Jenny Smith, with Newport Hospital and Health, told reporters on Friday, that Newport is sometimes having to provide ICU care to patients who normally would be transferred to larger hospitals. The hospital contracted with a critical care physician group recently to provide support and training for the staff.

On Friday, there were eight open medical or surgical hospital beds in the Inland Northwest.

Hospitals in the rural parts of Eastern Washington are experiencing what the rest of the state’s health care system is when it comes to capacity as well. It’s difficult to discharge patients who no longer need to be in the hospital when long-term care facilities are having outbreaks or staffing challenges themselves that limit how many patients they can take.

COVID case counts are beginning to rise again in the Northeast Tri-County region. In Republic, Ferry County Hospital still is running a drive-thru test site, and the test positivity rate has risen to 52% there, which means 25 people tested positive this week.

Public health officials in the region are planning to dispatch strike teams to sick patients with treatments like monoclonal antibodies or new anti-viral medications that can lessen symptoms to help prevent hospitalizations before they occur. These treatments are limited in their supply, however, and they must be reserved for the sickest and highest-risk patients.

Previously, the Department of Health helped with a strike team of their own, but this time, the public health and hospital teams will have to go it alone.

Hospitals in the Northeast Tri-County region have requested staffing support from the Department of Health’s contract with the employment agency ACI Federal, and as of Friday, they were waiting to hear back on that request.

To add insult to injury, the mountain passes closing due to inclement weather this week has created supply chain issues for the northeast corner of the state, and hospital leaders said they are struggling to get deliveries of supplies that typically come from Seattle or Portland.

Here’s a look at local numbersThe Spokane Regional Health District reported 852 new COVID-19 cases and five additional deaths on Friday.

There have been 1,159 deaths due to COVID-19 in Spokane County.

There are 80 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 in Spokane County.

The Panhandle Health District reported 213 new COVID-19 cases and no deaths on Friday.

There are 78 Panhandle residents hospitalized with the virus. Kootenai Health is treating 65 patients with the virus as of Friday morning.

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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