LIFE--BC-HEALTH-CORONAVIRUS-RURAL-WASHSTATE-2-SE

Sandy Martina, a registered nurse in the intensive care unit at Samaritan Healthcare in Moses Lake, puts on gear to enter a COVID-19 patient's room in the ICU in December. As of Monday, the state said there is one fewer COVID-19 patient hospitalized in Washington than the week before. Officials say it is too soon to say whether the hospitalizations will continue to plateau.

SEATTLE — While the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations in Washington may be showing early signs of a plateau, infection numbers are still high and scenes inside health care facilities remain “really bad,” some state hospital leaders said Monday.

Hospital officials counted 1,673 hospitalized COVID-19 patients in the state as of Monday, compared with last week’s count of 1,674, Taya Briley, executive vice president of the Washington State Hospital Association, said at a news conference.

“While these numbers are steady, they are still very sobering,” Briley said. “We’re in the midst of the worst peak of COVID cases we’ve experienced since the beginning of the pandemic.”

The stable number of hospitalizations also doesn’t yet take into consideration the effects of recent summer mass gatherings, including fairs, large concerts and school activities, she said.

The recent hospitalizations include a growing number of younger patients, with patients 60 years old or younger making up 20% to 25% of hospitalizations in this most recent surge, Briley said. In addition, hospitals are counting more and more pediatric cases.

“At any one time, the state has counted about 10 children hospitalized,” she said. “And while that’s an overall low number, if that child is your child, it is a terrible experience.”

Virus infections and the number of patients intubated continue on an upward swing.

The state was averaging about 350 new cases per day in late June and early July, Briley said. As of early September, Washington was seeing a seven-day average of more than 3,000 new infections per day, according to the state Department of Health’s coronavirus dashboard.

On Monday, Briley said there were about 260 Washington COVID-19 patients on ventilators, compared with 251 last week, meaning the number of very sick patients also continues to trend upward.

“All these hospitalizations and the misery of the patients and hospital staff caring for them could have been prevented,” she said. “More than 95% of those that are hospitalized are unvaccinated.”

There are vaccinated patients in the hospital as well, though they usually have an underlying health condition or are immunocompromised, she said.

Other hospital leaders and health experts on Monday morning said they’re starting to see hospital admissions begin to level off.

Dr. Christopher Baliga, an infectious disease physician at Virginia Mason Franciscan Health, said his hospital is just below its record hospitalization numbers, with last week being the peak.

Providence hospitals in Olympia and Centralia have also come off their hospitalization peak last week “just a little bit” and are now caring for 82 patients, said Darin Goss, chief executive of Providence St. Peter Hospital and Providence Centralia Hospital.

Of those, 14 patients are fully vaccinated and 68 are not, he said.

”We continue to watch our staff struggle,” Goss added.

Although worker shortages remain one of hospitals’ main concerns, some smaller rural hospitals are also running into patient transportation issues, said Diane Blake, CEO of Cascade Medical Center in Leavenworth, a critical-access hospital with a rural health clinic.

Because Cascade is a smaller facility, it usually transports sicker patients to larger regional medical facilities, Blake said. Twice in the last week, Cascade had to transport patients by air because ground transport wasn’t available, she added.

“(Air transport) is, of course, really expensive and not what it’s meant for,” she said. “Any time we have to transport patients across the state and take an ambulance out of service, we’re taking away close care to home, as well.”

Blake said it’s important Washingtonians know “in any moment, how close we are to crisis at any individual facility.”

Briley later reiterated the sentiment, saying that while Washington hospitals are not yet technically at “crisis standards of care” — meaning hospitals aren’t yet having to deny lifesaving treatment to one patient in order to give it to another — health care workers are in “an extremely challenging situation.”

“We are not there,” she said, renewing a plea for unvaccinated residents to get shots. “We are doing all we possibly can to avoid that.”

Baliga added, “We are keeping our head above water, but barely.”