COVID spread putting 'serious stress' on state hospital system already at capacity

An increase in COVID-19 admissions is leading to serious over-capacity issues at many hospitals in the state, and is putting a ‘serious stress on the system,’ according to health officials.

The Washington State Hospital Association (WSHA) had not an COVID update since the omicron surge subsided in March. However, CEO Cassie Sauer said she felt the need to hold a virtual one, because the situation is becoming very concerning statewide.

"Right now, we are in the ‘very concerned’ stage, when do we reach the point of ‘really concerned’ or ‘crisis,’ I’m not sure," said Sauer.

She said there were 600 COVID admissions in hospitals in the state at the end of last week, with a suspected 75 more to be confirmed. The level is much lower than 1700 admissions during the omicron peak in February, but more than double that of the April daily average of 230 cases.

"Our hospitals continue to be at or, in many circumstances, overcapacity, and in some cases extreme over capacity," said Dr. Steven Mitchell with UW Medicine and the Washington Medical Coordination Center.

Hospitals call the Coordination Center when they reach capacity and need to move people to other facilities.

Sauer said the inability for family members to authorize patients to be moved to care centers is creating a logjam of patients who are using up hospital beds that could go to other people.

"I believe we are the only state in the country where this can’t be done," said Sauer. "We asked the state legislature to change that, but it did not happen this year."

The good news, said nearly every member of the conference call’s panel, is that people are not getting deadly sick.

"It’s really hard to tease out how much of this are the variants themselves, versus the fact that we have lots of preexisting immunity in our population," said Dr. Chris Baliga with Virginia Mason Franciscan Health.

According to the latest numbers from the Washington Department of Health, 32 of the state’s 39 counties have crossed the seven-day average of 100 cases per 100,000 population, which puts nearly the entire state in the red on the state’s COVID dashboard.

COVID patients, whether they are in the hospital for COVID only, or were admitted for other reasons and also have COVID, represent 10% of all hospitalizations. According to Mitchell, the healthcare system is under serious stress, because many people who delayed treatments over the pandemic are now returning to hospitals.

"There’s a lack of messaging in the media about just how much COVID is in the community right now," said Baliga.

The Pacific Northwest Ballet canceled this past weekend's performances because of COVID cases among the dancers.

"We were seeing a slight increase in positive cases," said Gary Tucker, a spokesperson for the ballet. "At that point, it was not safe to move forward, because dancers are paired with other dancers to do lifts and leaps, and replacing them at the last minute would be unsafe."

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The ballet still requires all audiences members to show proof of vaccination and wear a mask for all performances. Tucker said rehearsals have resumed, and the hope is this weekend’s performance will go on as planned.

Right now, there has been no announcement of a statewide or county-by-county mask mandate by state health officials.

"Masks work," said Dr. David Carlson with MultiCare. "But they become a political problem, as opposed to a public health problem."