Hospitals put to the test again as virus patients surge

With beds filling, the medical system girds for a worsening COVID-19 pandemic.

OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee on Tuesday outlined a grim scenario in which hospitals can no longer provide adequate care for patients if the spread of the coronavirus is left unchecked.

As COVID-19 hospitalizations ascend to dangerous highs in Snohomish County, and across Washington, local and state officials are preparing to be overwhelmed, as they were at the start of the pandemic.

Every COVID metric is heading in the wrong direction:

The two-week case rate continues to climb. During the 14-day period ending Saturday, the county recorded 304 new cases per 100,000 residents — up from 278 last week. The rate statewide is nearly identical.

Last week, the county broke it’s single-day new case total with 302 infections in one day. The previous high was 277, set earlier this month. Statewide, there were 6,277 new cases reported from Saturday to Monday.

Cases are rising in every age group.

Eighty people were in Snohomish County hospitals due to COVID as of Tuesday, up nearly 400% from six weeks ago.

The percentage of tests coming back positive has tripled since October, reaching 10% — despite a doubling in the number of tests administered. The positivity rate is nearly in double-digits across the state, as well.

Snohomish Health District contact tracers are reaching fewer than 40% of newly infected people within 24 hours of a positive test result. Their goal is 90%.

The county averages about six COVID deaths each week. The health district expects that number to double or triple in the next two weeks. To date, 2,690 people have died from the virus in Washington.

“For several weeks now, I, other public health officials, Executive (Dave) Somers, Governor (Jay) Inslee, other elected leaders, scientists, business owners, doctors, nurses and countless others are pleading with all of us to curb social gatherings and mask up,” county health officer Dr. Chris Spitters said Tuesday. “We warned we were heading into a dire situation if immediate action wasn’t taken. … And yet, we find ourselves here today with Snohomish County and our state breaking record after record.”

In an effort to blunt the spread, Inslee imposed a slew of restrictions last week, including a ban on indoor dining at restaurants and bars. He also limited occupancy in retail stores and attendance at weddings, funerals and religious services, and halted indoor activities at gyms and fitness centers. The measures are in effect until Dec. 14.

But if they don’t succeed in bending the curve, the governor said at a news conference, “we will have no other option but to extend restrictions to other parts of our economy.”

“We cannot have people dying in the parking lots of our hospitals,” Inslee said. “That is not acceptable in the state of Washington.”

Some hospitals are again beginning to reschedule non-emergency procedures to free up beds and keep personnel free to treat COVID patients who are crowding emergency rooms and filling intensive care units.

“We’re buying space. We’re buying time,” Dr. Nathan Schlicher, president of the Washington State Medical Association, said at the news conference with Inslee.

Even with those measures, hospitals are approaching a crisis point where physicians may be forced to make life-or-death decisions on who gets care, Schlicher and Inslee said.

Local and state leaders again Tuesday asked Washingtonians to avoid Thanksgiving dinners with non-household members.

Snohomish County has seen a rise in cases after every holiday during the pandemic and as recently as Halloween.

The widespread transmission is also leading to outbreaks in long-term care homes and at Providence Regional Medical Center Everett.

Unlike during the first wave of COVID cases, hospitals in neighboring states are also experiencing a surge, so the county can’t send patients elsewhere for regular hospital care.

The county Department of Emergency Management has plans for field hospitals, if necessary, director Jason Biermann said Tuesday.

The state is also parsing data to assess whether to seek federal resources for such facilities, as was done earlier in the year.

At the time, a field hospital was briefly set up in Seattle when Washington was the epicenter of the then-emerging coronavirus crisis. Now, with the nationwide surge in cases, Biermann and Inslee said similar help will be harder to secure.

“That is a very legitimate concern,” Inslee said. “That is very much on our minds.”

But there’s hope on the horizon.

Washington could receive its first shipment of COVID vaccines as early as Dec. 14, Inslee said.

The state has a review process to determine the efficacy of vaccines before they are distributed to counties.

“Everything looks like it has been done to the highest standards to date of the evaluation,” Inslee said. “We see no reason why this can’t move forward very, very rapidly.”

With a limited early supply in Snohomish County, doses would go to health care workers, first responders, people at long-term care homes and older residents who are more vulnerable to the virus.

However, the vaccine won’t solve the current surge.

Each vaccine requires two doses, separated by three to four weeks. And it will take six to nine months to get everyone vaccinated.

Joey Thompson: 425-339-3449; Twitter: @byjoeythompson.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; Twitter: @dospueblos.

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