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Washington hospitals experiencing ‘extreme stress, capacity issues’ due to delta variant

The state reported Tuesday that 7,037 Washingtonians have died from COVID-19.

SEATTLE — Washington state is seeing the highest rates of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations since the start of the pandemic.

The Washington State Department of Health (DOH) warned Wednesday the health care system is experiencing “extreme stress” as hospitals across the state are near or over capacity.

Dr. Steve Mitchell, medical director for the Washington Medical Coordination Center, said there were 1,592 COVID-19 patients hospitalized across the state Wednesday, which is the equivalent of four Harborview Medical Centers at capacity.

Earlier this week, the Washington State Hospital Association reported that as cases have begun plateauing, the number of COVID-19 patients taking ventilators has continued to increase significantly.

“We are not over this pandemic at all, we’re at high levels,” DOH Acting Chief Science Officer Dr. Scott Lindquist said Wednesday. “We’re at high rates of disease. We’re at high rates of hospitalization, especially if you're unvaccinated.”

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Lindquist said people between the ages of 12 to 34 are 30 times more likely to be hospitalized from COVID-19 if they are unvaccinated. Between February and July of this year, 8,367 people who were not fully vaccinated were hospitalized with COVID-19 in Washington. In comparison, 584 fully vaccinated residents were hospitalized during that same time.

“Clearly, getting the vaccine is preventative for hospitalizations,” said Lindquist.

Mitchell said resource hospitals and smaller regional hospitals across the state are over capacity and turning areas not meant to be used as critical care areas into ICUs. Health care staff who don’t usually work in intensive care units are also being extended to help take care of ICU patients.

Mitchell warned the “trickle-down” effect is causing patients to wait too long for a hospital bed in emergency rooms.

“Meanwhile, the ambulances still keep coming, and our waiting rooms fill up to levels that none of us who work in emergency medicine are comfortable seeing,” Mitchell said.

The Washington Medical Coordination Center received more than 1,000 requests since July 1 to move patients from small rural hospitals unable to find room to facilities “many hours away” so they can receive care. 

Though the state is not yet operating at crisis standards of care, which is when hospitals must deny lifesaving treatment to one patient in order to give it to another, hospital officials stressed the state of the health care system is fragile right now. 

Secretary of Health Dr. Umair Shah used a rubber band as a metaphor to describe the strained hospital system.

“Just like a rubber band stretches, there comes a point where that rubber band just cannot take it anymore and it simply breaks,” said Shah. “And that is the concern that all of us have.”

While health officials said it’s encouraging COVID-19 cases have started “stalling out,” they pleaded with the public to work together and “put up our defenses to fight” COVID-19.

“What we’re doing appears to be working,” said Shah. “When people are wearing masks, when people are getting vaccinated, and they’re avoiding crowded situations, those are the kinds of things that are helping see that flattening we are starting to see. But it is well too early.”

Earlier this week, Virginia Mason’s Dr. Christopher Baliga said hospitals are “keeping our head above water, but barely,” adding that surgeries have been reduced and health care facilities are “not operating normally.”

It isn’t just COVID-19 patients, but also staffing shortages as more people leave the health care industry amid the latest spike in cases driven by the delta variant.

Despite Tuesday’s grim milestone, there were some positive takeaways from the new data.

Case rates showed a dramatic dip early last week after plateauing over the course of a week or so. The seven-day average dipped below 3,000 cases for the first time since mid-August on Sept. 6, exactly two weeks after the statewide indoor mask mandate went into effect.

However, there may be some lull in the reporting due to the Labor Day holiday.

Vaccination rates remain steady with the seven-day average of daily doses given between 15,000 to 16,000 from the end of August through early September.

As of Tuesday, more than 68% of the state’s eligible population is fully vaccinated with about 75% having at least gotten one dose.