As Washington’s COVID-19 hospitalizations reach records, competition for federal resources will be fierce

The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 over Thanksgiving Day broke a new, grim record: More than 90,000 people across the country spent the holiday in the hospital with COVID-19. 

In Washington state, nearly 900 people were hospitalized with COVID-like illness on Thanksgiving Day, with 83 of those patients on ventilators. 

Washington’s health care system is on the brink of breaching its hospital-bed targets for COVID-19 patients. From Nov. 4 to Nov. 24, the number of suspected and confirmed COVID-19 patients in hospitals more than doubled. 

Hospitals are canceling surgeries, adding beds and shifting staff to make room.

“We do have capacity in our ICUs and on our floor, but I'm not gonna lie, it's tight, beds are tight,” said Dr. Elizabeth Wako, Chief Operating Officer of Swedish First Hill. 

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Beds taken by COVID-19 patients around the state are at 9.9 percent through Tuesday, inching closer to breaching the under-10% target set by the state. In much of the Puget Sound, fewer than 20% of hospital beds remain, right as experts expect a surge in Thanksgiving-driven hospitalizations. 

The state first experienced alarmingly low hospital capacity levels at the beginning of the pandemic. At the time, the military and others came to the state’s aid, setting up field hospitals in the event hospitals overflowed. 

“We were right on the brink of that last March and of course it could happen again,” said Snohomish Health Officer Dr. Chris Spitters. 

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In the spring, the state ended up not needing field hospitals and sent additional federal resources packing to assist other states. But as COVID-19 hospitalizations reach records this fall, this time field hospitals may be out of reach for Washington state. 

“Many of the federal assets that were available in the spring are now deployed elsewhere throughout the country as the whole country is seeing this massive uptick in COVID cases,” said Jason Biermann, Snohomish County’s emergency manager. “While we have those plans in place [for field hospitals], the number of resources available are far fewer than they were in the spring.”

While emergency managers like Biermann prepare for the worst, State Health Officer Dr. Kathy Lofy said the best place for patients is in an existing health care facility.