RICHLAND — Kadlec Regional Medical Center has had to search across the Northwest for other hospitals to treat some of the most seriously ill Tri-Cities area patients over the last week as COVID-19 has surged again.

The 20-bed ICU at the Richland hospital, the largest in the Tri-Cities, has been at capacity in recent days, said Dr. Phani Kantamneni, medical director of the Kadlec ICU.

But it doesn’t need to be that way, he said.

He estimated that 99.5% of Kadlec ICU patients being treated for COVID since vaccines became available in late December are unvaccinated.

“I think as a community what we can all do is definitely to get vaccinated and make sure we protect each other. That is key,” he said.

The hospital will be better able to provide medical care to all types of seriously ill patients if the ICU is not filled with COVID-19 patients, he said.

In the first week of June the Kadlec ICU was treating two or three COVID-19 patients, with a total of about 10 to 12 COVID patients in the hospital.

“Within a month, that number has almost tripled, if not more,” Kantamneni said.

On Friday the hospital was treating 39 COVID patients. On Tuesday, nine of the 17 patients in intensive care were COVID patients, he said.

He’s also seeing another difference in patients he treats.

The age of COVID patients being treated in the ICU has dropped since earlier in the pandemic when elderly people, who were at the highest risk of serious illness, were not vaccinated.

Now the ICU is treating some people in their 40s and 50s rather than in their 70s and 80s, Kantamneni said.

COVID-19 patients tend to need longer stays in the ICU than other patients, limiting the number of new intensive care patients that can be admitted, he said.

“When we occupy the beds with COVID patients, then when anybody in the community needs an ICU bed we are unable to provide that,” he said.

People who have a heart attack or are in a serious car accident may have to be sent out of the city for care if half the ICU capacity is being used by COVID patients, he said.

Over the last week, hospital staff have had to search for available ICU beds in Washington, Oregon and Idaho for Tri-Cities area patients, he said. They’ve found that other ICU’s also are at or nearing capacity.

The number of ICU beds available at Kadlec also can be limited by available staff with the skills and experience to treat patients needing intensive care.

“To see that patients are still coming in with COVID-19, despite having a vaccine out there, is placing a lot of stress on everybody who is working in these units,” he said.

Nurses have quit their jobs as the Tri-Cities enters what is the fourth wave of COVID in the Tri-Cities area, he said, and some are taking more time off.

During the first and second waves of COVID-19, workers stepped up to serve on the front lines of the pandemic to help their community, he said.

But with the vaccine available and people not getting it, “it really does get demotivating and discouraging. You will see the effects of burnout and front line workers struggling with that,” he said.

A small percentage of people who are vaccinated may get COVID, but Kantamneni said they are unlikely to be nearly as sick as those he treats in the ICU.

Yet the COVID-19 vaccination rates continue to lag the rest of the state.

As of the end of last week, 61% of Washington state residents eligible to be vaccinated — those ages 12 and older — were fully protected.

In Benton County, it was 47% of people ages 12 and older and in Franklin County 40% of people ages 12 and older were fully vaccinated, according to the Washington state Department of Health.

“Please get vaccinated,” Kantamneni said. “They are safe, they’re tested and you will do your community some service.”