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Western Washington hospitals, ERs bracing for increase in heat-sick patients

A Seattle Fire Paramedic said people experiencing dehydration and an "altered level of consciousness" are signs of severe heat illness.

SEATTLE — Hospitals around western Washington are preparing for record-breaking high temperatures in the coming days.

Seattle's Harborview Medical Center is one of several emergency room hospitals in the Puget Sound region preparing for incoming patients experiencing heat-related illness.

"When we come across times when we know the weather is going to be very, very hot, we just review our standard protocols to make sure we have the proper supplies on hand as well," said Dr. Steve Mitchell, director of Harborview Medical Center's Emergency Medicine Department.

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The ER will be staffed to handle patients experiencing heatstroke, severe dehydration and even near-drownings, according to Mitchell.

"We're confident that the right team will be in place when we need it," said Mitchell.

The Seattle Fire Department's EMT staff are also bracing for an increase in heat-related calls and will transport patients to emergency rooms if they recognize the signs of more severe illness.

"When we see a person who's got an altered level of consciousness, they're profoundly dehydrated, they're really really sick," said Seattle Fire Paramedic Byran Smith.

Smith said his EMT staff use IV bags to re-hydrate patients and use ice packs for quick cooldowns.

The number-one thing Smith said people can do to avoid a trip to the hospital is to stay cool and drink plenty of fluids.

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Mitchell said people should also avoid alcohol consumption if they are planning to be in the water, as this could impair judgment.

"We see injuries related to people who are in the water really commonly during the summertime, as well in the trauma center, as well as drowning patients," explained Mitchell.

Any opportunity to avoid a trip to the hospital is beneficial to the patient and to a health care system that continues to be strained by the COVID-19 pandemic, Mitchell added.

"It's pretty thin, and it's very challenged right now, and we're doing a lot to try and bolster that, but it really is sort of a fragile time right now in health care," said Mitchell.

Overlake Medical Center in Bellevue is also equipped with an ER staff to handle heat-related calls, as well as Virginia Mason Franciscan Health system.

"All of Virginia Mason Franciscan Health's Emergency Departments and Urgent Care Clinics are well equipped with staff that are knowledgeable about the proper treatment of heat injuries," Virginia Mason Franciscan Health Chief Medical Officer Michael Anderson said in a statement.

Anderson recommended replacing electrolytes in addition to staying hydrated and said some people may be more vulnerable in hot temperatures than others.

"Although most people immediately think about the risk for physically active individuals, we also have to remember that the homeless population and the elderly are at higher risk for heat injuries, especially if they do not have access to oral fluids and air conditioning," said Anderson.