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Washington hospitals nearing capacity, seeing largest number of COVID-19 patients ever

Hospitals are trying to discharge patients as quickly as possible, especially those who need to go to long-term care facilities.

SEATTLE — The Washington State Hospital Association (WSHA) painted a bleak picture for the state’s medical facilities during a briefing Thursday as hospitals approach 100% occupancy amid a new wave in the COVID-19 pandemic.

WSHA President and CEO Cassie Sauer said hospitals are working on discharging patients as quickly as possible, especially those who can seek care in other settings, in order to free up hospital beds.

The latest data shows 1,240 COVID-19 patients are currently in Washington state hospitals. About 85-90% of those patients are unvaccinated, while the other 10-15% are almost entirely those who are vaccinated but suffer from a preexisting medical condition.

The previous record for the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients came in December, with about 1,100 hospitalizations.

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In addition to COVID-19 patients, hospital occupancy is largely being driven up by other maladies and traumas, with patients who have become more comfortable returning to hospitals since the pandemic waned earlier this year.

Mark Taylor, director of operations for the Washington Medical Coordination Center, revealed that despite the drop in COVID-19 cases in the spring, hospital occupancy actually continued to go up during that time.

Now, with trauma season in full gear as more people head outdoors, hospital beds are becoming more and more scarce across the state, and medical staff is being stretched toward a breaking point.

WATCH: Washington State Hospital Association provides update on COVID-19 pandemic

Sauer said the group was thankful for Gov. Jay Inslee expanding the state's mask mandate for indoor public places regardless of vaccination status but urged everyone to “be careful” and avoid activities risking any potential hospital visit.

“This disease is not conquered,” said Sauer, adding that hospitals are looking to the public to help prevent them from having to resort to “crisis standards of care,” during which doctors have to choose who to admit into hospitals based on available beds and staff.

The virus is also becoming more prevalent in younger patients.

Dr. Danielle Zerr, division chief of pediatric infectious disease and medical director of infection prevention at Seattle Children’s, said the hospital is at about 100% occupancy, with about 10-11 COVID-19 patients admitted at one time, which is the highest the hospital has seen since the pandemic began.

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Zerr said most of the hospital’s COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated teens who are otherwise healthy. She said these patients are sicker now than previously in the pandemic.

Dr. George Diaz with Providence Health said his staff is becoming more and more frustrated with unvaccinated patients, with many becoming burnt out and quitting the industry, putting further strain on his hospital and others around the state.

Sauer admitted, “I’m really worried about where it could go,” while noting that the cooperation between hospitals in the state has saved many from being overrun with patients.

Already, the surge in occupancy has forced hospitals to once again stop performing elected surgeries. These include operations to remove cancerous tumors and replace heart valves.

In addition to wearing masks and getting the COVID-19 vaccine, Sauer is also encouraging people to donate blood due to a critical shortage in the blood supply.

“This is a great time to donate blood and to really shore up the blood supply so we can make sure that’s not a secondary crisis that’s happening,” said Sauer.

In recent days, hospitals have seen a small downturn in incoming COVID-19 patients, but Sauer said it is too early to tell if it is a trend.