‘Our staff is getting sick’: health care leaders talk hospital impacts of rise in COVID-19 cases

(RICK BANNAN/Centralia Chronicle)

Washingtonians urged to follow restrictions ahead of vaccine administration, which Is likely to begin next month

Those working on the frontlines in hospitals are feeling the pressure of the current wave of COVID-19 in Washington state as leaders in the medical community warn that not adhering to restrictions in place intended to stop the spread of the disease could lead to a care crisis across the board.

During a press conference Nov. 14, Gov. Jay Inslee said Washington’s recent COVID-19 case rate was 300 per 100,000 of population in the past two weeks. As a result of the increase, hospitalizations in Washington were near an all-time high, Inslee said, near where they were in March when the governor made the first round of executive orders restricting businesses and activities in an effort to halt COVID-19 activity.

Washington State Medical Association President Nathan Schlicher also said that hospitals were hitting record capacity. An emergency room doctor himself, Schlicher said that capacity issues were more than just the number of available hospital beds, but also the number of staff working in buildings.

“Our staff is getting sick,” Schlicher said, acknowledging the likelihood of disease exposure for those working in COVID-19 units.

Noting that many hospitals were stopping elective surgeries to handle increased COVID-19 activity, Schlicher said that the surgeries being deferred weren’t just for minor conditions, recounting one case where a patient could not receive care for a heart condition and ended up dying as a result.

“It’s heartbreaking to watch people die from this disease … It’s heartbreaking to watch people not get the care that they need because we don’t have space to do anything other than COVID-19.”

SEIU 1199 Vice President Betsy Scott said she hears on an almost daily basis from health care workers fearful that they would become infected by COVID-19 and bring it back to their homes. She said her daughter and son-in-law had contracted COVID-19, but luckily did not require emergency care.

Those who do require that care may find themselves in overcrowded emergency departments where patients are being seen on gurneys in hospital hallways waiting for a room to open up, Scott added.

“This scenario is a living nightmare for thousands of other families and patients every day,” Scott remarked, reiterating the call for Washingtonians not to gather with those outside of their households.

“If we ask (health care workers) to go in there every single day for months and expose (themselves) to COVID, frankly the least we can do is maybe defer a dinner for a while,” Inslee said.

Inslee said that adding more beds to hospitals could be done relatively easier than adding needed staffing for those beds. He gave a few examples of avenues to pursue to increase staffing, such as recruiting recently-retired health care staff, or potentially military medical staff, as are being utilized in North Dakota.

Schlicher said without a change in behavior in the state that would lessen COVID-19 spread, disease activity wouldn’t peak until February. Inslee said that there was a possibility for current restrictions in place through a Nov. 15 order could be continued longer than the current Dec. 14 expiration date if the virus’ trajectory does not drop.

“Unless something changes in the course of this pandemic, we will reach a situation where hospitals not only have to deny people care for a whole multiple of things — cancer treatments, defibrillators, hips, knees, you name it — but they will also have to move into a critical care situation where they simply cannot provide care for critically-ill people whose life is threatened,” Inslee warned.

Schlicher added that although hospitals in the state have been able to avoid taking crisis measures so far, continued spread of COVID-19 at current levels could lead to a need for triaging of patients to decide who receives the limited resources.

“This isn’t a hoax. This isn’t something that’s no big deal, because it’s not just the 1 or 2 percent that die from this disease, it’s the 10 percent that have lifetime implications,” Schlicher said.

Inslee did share some good news regarding upcoming vaccine administration, referencing a call with the federal government’s vaccine team and governors the day prior. He said there was a possibility for first administrations of the vaccine in mid-December, adding plans were in place for distribution when the time comes.

“We know that the help is going to be here in a relatively short period of time,” though the vaccine likely would not be available for the majority of Washingtonians until next year, Inslee said.

“Just because the vaccine is on the horizon, it doesn’t mean that we can ignore all the public health measures today,” Schlicher said, “because we don’t want to see you in the ER.”

“Taking (COVID-19 precautions) seriously like we do helmets and seatbelts is so critically important,” Schlicher said.

Inslee noted that compared to the nation as a whole, Washington was one of the states handling its outbreak the best. He pointed to an article in the New York Times based on a survey where Washington was the highest-ranking state for residents staying with their own household for Thanksgiving.

The governor said this was indicative of statewide efforts that have kept Washington among the top states for control of COVID-19 activity.

“We’re doing the right thing in so many different places, and we know if we keep doing this, we’re going to knock this pandemic down,” Inslee said.