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Yakima County hospitals overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients

The number of available beds at Yakima County's primary hospital fell to zero over the weekend.

YAKIMA COUNTY, Wash. — It's a milestone feared by every public health worker in the country: the day they need more hospital beds than they have.

In Yakima County — a place referred to by Governor Jay Inslee last week as the state epicenter of coronavirus — that fear became real over the weekend. The area's primary hospital now has zero available beds, ICU or otherwise, according to the local health district.

With 61 people simultaneously hospitalized on Friday, the county reached a new peak during the pandemic. Seventeen people had to be taken out of the county to get a bed.

The overflow headed mostly to nearby Franklin and Benton counties. Health officials there warned that their systems may soon be overwhelmed, too, if this trend continues. 

In addition to beds, there's a critical staffing shortage at local hospitals thanks mostly to staffers being exposed to the virus themselves.

In response to this high rate of spread, Inslee announced he intends to issue much stricter requirements about mask use in the region. A new order mandating it county-wide is expected early this week.

There are already mask requirements in many counties, such as Spokane and King, but those aren't strictly enforced. In fact, Spokane's order specifically states it isn't enforceable —  no arrests or citations are allowed.

RELATED: Spokane County urging people to wear masks in indoor public places

But the Yakima order will take a different tact. It will require that all businesses refuse to serve customers unless they're wearing a mask.

With such an order, enforcement would fall to various state agencies rather than local cops. And it so far has been the regulatory agencies that have done nearly all of the enforcement for any of the governor's coronavirus orders.

The number of cases continues to climb in Spokane County, but there isn't the same concern regarding hospital space as there is in Yakima.

Nonetheless, Providence Health Care issued a statement reading in part:

"While we have capacity at our hospitals, we do not support starting the process to move into Phase 3 reopening because it has the potential to put undue stress on our health care system and put a greater number of individuals at risk."

RELATED: Spokane County not moving to Phase 3 'for the foreseeable future,' health officer says

RELATED: This is how bad the coronavirus outbreak is in Yakima County