OLYMPIA – Washington is deploying the National Guard to Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane and pausing all nonurgent procedures statewide, Gov. Jay Inslee announced Thursday.
Hospitals across the state are at or nearing capacity, Inslee said. An ongoing staffing crisis and increase in COVID-19 cases due to the omicron variant has pushed hospitals to near breaking points. Spokane health officials warned Wednesday that hospitals in the county are at 97% occupancy, while intensive care units are full.
Statewide, COVID hospitalizations are now exceeding average high counts seen during the delta variant surge last fall, and as more patients with COVID are needing treatment, staffing is stretched thin.
“Hospitals and doctors have told us their systems really are now in crisis,” Inslee said. “We are responding to those concerns today in ways we can help.”
Inslee is calling on the Washington State National Guard to deploy 100 nonclinical personnel across the state to aid in emergency departments and provide COVID-19 testing teams.
The Guard members will likely arrive by Jan. 24 at the latest, Gen. Bret Daugherty said.
“We’re moving as quickly as we can,” Daugherty said.
The Guard will be sending a nonclinical support team to Sacred Heart’s emergency department next week, and Providence officials expressed gratitude for the support, noting the extreme stress the hospital and emergency rooms are under.
Those in the emergency departments will help with nonmedical tasks to alleviate the current “crowded and chaotic situation,” according to Inslee’s office. Some will be deployed to Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center and Children’s Hospital . Others will go to hospitals in Everett, Yakima and Wenatchee.
Those helping with testing will set up new sites outside of hospitals. They will be based in Olympia, Richland, Seattle and Tacoma. Additional sites are being set up in King and Snohomish counties, according to Inslee’s office.
It will likely take a week or so to get the testing sites up and running, Inslee said.
Inslee also announced Thursday he is requiring hospitals across the state to halt nonurgent procedures for four weeks. The pause will allow as much capacity and as many staff to be dedicated to emergent patients in the hospital as possible, Inslee said.
Last week, the Washington State Medical Association, along with a statewide chapter of emergency physicians, sent the governor and Department of Health a letter asking for immediate assistance to address the staffing crisis. They asked the governor to deploy the National Guard to help with nonmedical needs.
Most hospitals, including those in Spokane County, are experiencing staffing shortages in all parts of their facilities due to people being exposed to the new variant or testing positive for the virus. The pandemic added significant stress and exhaustion for health care workers, exacerbating staffing shortages that pre-date the pandemic.
The medical association also asked for more incentives for long-term care facilities to take patients, and changes in the guardianship law, which requires a family member with legal guardianship to sign off before moving a patient out of a hospital.
Many hospitals have patients they could discharge to a long-term care facility or adult family home, but barriers exist, from those guardianship laws to prior authorization needed from state agencies.
Inslee announced multiple actions to help in discharging patients to long-term care facilities. Long-term care providers also face staff shortages, which makes it more difficult for hospitals to discharge patients to those facilities.
The National Guard will not be deployed to long-term care facilities at this time, but the state will be contracting additional staff to help admit patients, perform assessments and work on transition planning.
The additional long-term care staff will help about 240 residents be discharged from hospitals, he said.
“This is a more longer-term solution and can be done relatively rapidly,” Inslee said.
The state will contract with Area Agencies on Aging to help with transitions for patients not on Medicaid. This will allow individuals to transition from the hospital, regardless of payer status, and it will free up hospital discharge planners.
On the issue of guardianship proceedings, Inslee announced the state will bring in another 75 guardians to help patients who may need someone to sign off on them moving to a long-term care facility.
He said Thursday he does not have the authority to change the law to allow family members who are not guardians to make decisions. He said he would work with the Legislature to see if there’s anything that can be done to make the process faster. He said he could also look into giving superior courts more resources to help with the guardianship process.
Long-term care settings are also experiencing outbreaks again. In Spokane County, there are 42 long-term care settings with active COVID outbreaks, meaning at least one case has been confirmed in the last few weeks.
In addition to the 100 National Guard members being deployed, the state has also deployed 875 people since August through a federal contract , Secretary of Health Dr. Umair Shah said Thursday.
“Today’s announcement is not the first set of actions,” Shah said.
The contract still has more than 300 personnel available for facilities for clinical and non-clinical staff, Inslee said Thursday. About 200 will be deployed as part of the plans announced Thursday.
Inslee also called on retired health care workers to temporarily return to the workforce to help with staffing. Those who want to help can sign up at WAServ.org.
Here’s a look at local numbers:
The Spokane Regional Health District reported 812 new COVID-19 cases and no additional deaths.
New hospitalization data was not available due to an error in the reporting system.
The Panhandle Health District reported 220 new COVID-19 cases and two additional deaths.
There have been 811 deaths due to COVID-19 in Panhandle residents.
There are 127 Panhandle residents hospitalized with the virus.
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