Surgeries paused, National Guard deployed to assist hospitals

Guard troops will help Providence in Everett, among other places, deal with a surge in virus patients and staffing shortages.

During a news conference Thursday, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee explains the deployment of the National Guard to hospitals to assist with the coronavirus surge. (TVW)

During a news conference Thursday, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee explains the deployment of the National Guard to hospitals to assist with the coronavirus surge. (TVW)

OLYMPIA — The Washington National Guard will deploy to Providence Regional Medical Center Everett and elsewhere in the state to help medical emergency departments overwhelmed by the recent coronavirus surge, Gov. Jay Inslee announced Thursday.

And to free up staff for patients needing emergency care, the governor is ordering a four-week pause on non-urgent medical procedures statewide. Physicians will have discretion over what surgeries can go forward.

“We think that’s a reasonable time, hopefully, to get through the peak of this,” Inslee said.

At a news conference, he said his actions are in response to hospital leaders who say they are in a crisis situation as they try to cope with a dramatic increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations and a dire shortage of staff needed to treat patients. This week, local officials reported Snohomish County’s ICU capacity at 95% and its overall hospital capacity at 97%.

“So there’s very few beds available,” Snohomish Health District health officer Dr. Chris Spitters said Tuesday.

Inslee said 100 members of the National Guard will be deployed statewide by Jan. 24.

Teams of about 10 people will carry out non-medical tasks in emergency departments at Providence in Everett and at hospitals in Spokane, Yakima and Wenatchee.

“We know the emergency rooms are full,” Inslee said. “We want to help hospitals handle the volume of patients.”

Other teams will be used at COVID-19 testing sites outside hospitals in Seattle, Tacoma, Olympia and Richland. Inslee also confirmed Snohomish County will soon get a mass vaccination site. Details about where and when it will operate were not released. Local leaders think it could be up and running by the end of the month.

Inslee also took aim at another challenge: people who do not need to be in hospitals but are there nonetheless because there is no space or staff for them in a long-term care facility. At Providence in Everett, that includes over 100 people in hospital beds waiting to be discharged.

He said the state will beef up staffing in nursing homes so they can admit more of those patients. And the governor said more people will be put to work helping patients make the transition into long-term care, thus freeing up needed hospital beds.

Patients unable to make decisions on their own need guardians. Efforts will be made to increase the number of guardians to accelerate the process of getting these patients out of hospitals.

Officials paused non-emergency procedures at Providence Regional Medical Center last month, also clamping down on visitation.

“The National Guard will offer welcome relief to some of our overworked caregivers,” said Providence Northwest chief executive Darren Redick. “And we hope their presence will underscore the importance of getting vaccinated, boosted and taking other actions like social distancing and masking to prevent the spread of further hospitalizations.”

An emergency command center has been set up to coordinate staffing and supplies, Providence chief medical officer Dr. Jay Cook told reporters earlier this week.

He described “non-traditional” rooms in the Everett hospital being opened up to care for a surge in patients, although he noted none of those are non-clinical spaces like conference rooms.

“These new resources coming to help support the health of Snohomish County’s residents are both timely and lifesaving,” county Executive Dave Somers said in a statement. “We are grateful that Gov. Inslee recognizes the need and has acted accordingly.”

The steps announced by Inslee are reminiscent of ones he took in the pandemic’s earliest days, in 2020. In March that year, he clamped down on elective surgeries and halted dental procedures — the concern then being a lack of personal protective equipment.

Supplies of PPE are no longer a problem. Now it’s staffing.

In recent months, some health care workers have left rather than comply with a vaccine mandate. Now the omicron variant is infecting those in the trenches, depleting their ranks daily. Looking ahead, many workers are eyeing an exit as the pandemic enters a third year.

To help, the governor said, the state is training and hiring more workers. He appealed to retired health care workers to step up, even temporarily, to ease the stress of those on the front lines.

He also pressed hospitals to hire employees through a federal program which will cover some or all of their salaries. This state was allocated 1,210 contract positions and roughly 125 are still available for hiring.

“They need to step up to the plate and hire those people,” Inslee said.

Meanwhile, Inslee announced last week that roughly 3 million rapid tests and several million masks, including KN-95s, would be made available by the state at no cost. On Thursday, he said the means for ordering them online could be in place by Jan. 21. Amazon has agreed to provide delivery, he said.

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

Claudia Yaw: 425-339-3449; claudia.yaw@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @yawclaudia.

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