The state's COVID-19 vaccination deadline for thousands of employees arrives at the end of Monday, pushing health care facilities throughout Washington to scramble to sort through remaining compliance records and take stock of potential service cuts.
Immunization rates for hospital workers are high throughout the state, though rural eastern Washington is expected to be hit harder by the mandate, Washington State Hospital Association CEO Cassie Sauer said during a Monday news briefing.
Last week, the state hospital association reported about 88% of hospital workers were fully vaccinated. While Sauer didn't have updates on compliance data Monday, she said there's been "some movement" in the group of workers who were partially vaccinated, had a pending exemption request or hadn't yet submitted their vaccine verification information.
"Some of the partially vaccinated folks have gotten their second shot," she said. " ... There was a lot of activity at the end of last week, over the weekend and probably until the end of today."
The hospital association had said last week that it expected to lose anywhere from 2% to 5% of hospital staff — between 3,000 and 7,500 employees — because of the mandate. But Sauer said Monday that that estimate might be on the higher end.
As of Monday, about 98% of Seattle Children's and 99% of UW Medicine's medical staff were fully vaccinated, hospital leaders said.
At UW Medicine, about 220 staffers will either resign or be fired after Monday because of the mandate, Dr. Tim Dellitt, the hospital's chief medical officer, said during the news briefing.
"That's impactful," he said. " ... On one hand, we're very pleased with our vaccination rates, but this is a lot of work and I don't think when the governor put in the proclamation perhaps we had anticipated all the logistical challenges of getting this implemented by today."
Concerns remain regarding vaccination compliance for long-term care workers and ambulance and fire department employees, groups that have reported lower immunization rates in the past few weeks.
"That has the potential to create kind of a cascading impact across hospitals if patients can't get to a hospital or can't be transported to a hospital or they need to move or if long-term care can't accept patients who need to leave the hospital," Sauer said.
While hospitals survey the impact of the mandate on their workforce, the state's decline in COVID-19 hospitalizations has started to slow, with hardly any decrease in intubated patients. As of Monday, there were 1,025 COVID-19 patients in Washington hospitals, compared to 1,101 last week, Sauer said.
"We wish they were declining faster," she said.
According to the state Department of Health's most recent complete coronavirus data, hospitalizations were going down by about 15% per week in early to mid-September after passing the peak of the recent delta wave. In the first week of October, however, hospitalizations had only fallen by about 6% since the previous week — to a seven-day average rate of about 11 hospitalizations per 100,000 people.
About 10 to 15 Washingtonians per day continue to die from the virus, Sauer added. In total, 8,234 people in the state have died from COVID-19 since the pandemic began.
"That's also a decline, which is good news, but it's still a ton," Sauer said. " ... If there was someone who was shooting 10 to 15 people per day or there was a car malfunction that killed 10 to 15 people a day in our state, I think response in the public would be tremendous."
She added, "Every one of these is tragic."
Infections and hospitalizations in eastern Washington also remain high, said Reza Kaleel, chief executive of Kadlec Health System in the Tri-Cities, which has reported that over 90% of its staff is fully vaccinated or has an approved exemption.
Hospitalizations have come down a bit at Kadlec, Kaleel said, but part of that is because they've seen a higher number of recent deaths.
"We're 21 months into this pandemic and I think there's a numbness or unfortunate tolerance to see these numbers every day, whereas early in the pandemic they really struck a chord with the community," said Dellitt, of UW Medicine. "And I think it just shows the prolonged nature of this pandemic and the impact it's having.
"But we can't lose sight of the impact that each of those deaths has, not only on their families but really on our entire community."