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Emergency rooms at capacity in Puget Sound region

Officials say we're at our 'most fragile time' since the start of the pandemic.

MOUNT VERNON, Wash. — The beds at Skagit Valley Hospital are almost completely full.

Doctors started seeing the strain on the system start when the state began reopening near the end of June following more than a year of COVID-19 restrictions.

Wait times in the emergency department at Skagit Valley Hospital are more than double what they usually are. 

At some clinics, the waits have reached four hours.

The situation has health officials concerned over the level of care their patients are receiving.

"You start really getting worried about whether you'll be able to do what you need to do as fast as you need to do it," said Dr. Connie Davis, chief medical officer of Skagit Regional Health.

The causes for the surge are many and often related to the pandemic - the emergence of more serious health problems due to delayed visits to the doctor, among other issues.

They're all forcing ER doctors and nurses to turn waiting rooms into triage centers.

"The physicians are staggering some of the shifts," Davis said. "They've been working the waiting rooms, going out there in order check patients' conditions to see if they are really, really sick and need to be monitored more closely."

The situation is much the same all around Puget Sound. Providence Medical Center in Everett is operating at capacity. Harborview Medical Center is as well.

As the region's level one trauma center, Harborview is receiving patients from other states -- people with serious burns and complex injuries. Ambulances have been forced to wait up to 90 minutes, at times, to unload their patients.

Harborview is home to the Medical Coordination Center designed to help manage the stress put on the health care system by COVID-19.

Medical Director Dr. Steven Mitchell said the surge couldn't have come at a worse time as health care workers, especially nurses, are fleeing the industry citing stress and burnout.

"People are beginning to transfer out of health care so staffing at our hospitals has become a challenge throughout the entire state and really throughout the entire country," Mitchell said. "I'd say we're at our most fragile time since the start of the pandemic."

Add to that an apparent fifth wave of COVID that is upon us and projections are grim.

Skagit Valley's Dr. Davis has grave concerns the summer surge will extend into the fall, perhaps beyond.

"As the summer goes on and people continue to have fun, get together, do things and not be masked and not be vaccinated, it's the gift that keeps on giving," she said. "The only way to stop this is for people to get vaccinated."

Both doctors stress people shouldn't let long waits dissuade them from going to the emergency room if they truly need to.

"No matter what, if you don't feel right, please do come," Davis said. "We will find a way to make sure you're taken care of."