Health care leaders are again becoming increasingly worried about hospital capacity in Washington as intensive care units and emergency rooms start to fill up, driven by the spread of the extremely transmissible delta variant of the coronavirus among unvaccinated residents.
Cassie Sauer, president and CEO of the Washington State Hospital Association, said during a Monday news conference that the delta variant, which now is responsible for most new cases of infection in the state, is one of the biggest concerns among health leaders. It's particularly "demoralizing" for staff to care for very sick COVID-19 patients when they're not vaccinated, she added.
"It is scary and emotionally draining and very physically exhausting work to care for COVID patients," Sauer said. "And to know that this is a preventable disease at this point, that people can take an easy action to protect themselves from getting this sick, is really challenging."
While the variant is primarily fueling the rise in hospital admissions, Sauer said hospitals have also recently been filling up with patients from "trauma season" — falls, gun violence and drownings — made worse by wildfires and smoky weather and delayed care, including those whose nonurgent procedures were postponed due to the pandemic.
"Right now, it's pretty universal that every hospital is quite full," Sauer said. "We do risk getting overwhelmed in our hospitals right now, and that's why we're here pleading with the public to take all the actions possible to not get COVID."
As of last week, a seven-day average of 84.4% of all ICU beds had been filled, with COVID-19 patients using about 11.3%.
As of last week, the state Department of Health reported about 7.7% of Washington's emergency patients had COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, or were experiencing COVID-19-like symptoms. That's a jump since the end of June, when the state was facing a hospitalization rate of about 3.5%. In past waves of the virus, such as during this past winter or last spring, the state had neared rates of about 12 to 13%, according to DOH's data dashboard.
John Lynch, the medical director of Harborview Medical Center's infection control, antibiotic stewardship and employee health programs, said Monday that University of Washington Medicine health care workers are also exhausted from treating yet another influx of COVID-19 patients.
"We've got a topped-off system with workers who have been dealing with COVID-19 response for over a year and a half and are really feeling the stress of dealing with yet another surge that is really focused on folks who are not vaccinated, particularly young adults who are showing up at our hospitals and ending up in our acute-care units and/or ICU units," Lynch said Monday.
He added that Harborview is currently treating two unvaccinated patients with COVID-19 who have since been put on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation machines, which pump blood outside the body to a heart-lung machine that removes carbon dioxide and sends oxygenated blood back to the body.
Hospitals' tightening capacity pushed the WSHA board to last week pass a resolution urging all hospitals in the state to require vaccinations for their health care workers, an initiative King County's public health leaders echoed near the end of the week.
Workers requesting medical or religious exemptions would be excused from the requirement.
"This is a big deal," Sauer said Monday. "We understand vaccine requirements are controversial, but we think this is the right thing to do and we are eager to help our hospitals across the state implement this policy."
It wasn't clear Monday how many hospitals in the state began implementing new vaccination requirements for workers, she said, though some are in the process of rolling out new policies, like Swedish Health Services.
Others already started requiring all health care workers to get vaccinated, including UW Medicine hospitals in Seattle and Renton, which as of Monday were approaching a 90% vaccination rate among UW Medicine health care workers, Lynch said.
"Some people are concerned about requiring vaccinations and that impact on staff who choose not to get vaccinated and potentially lose their positions, but that will happen if you have unvaccinated health workers," Lynch said. "They will get exposed or infected and then you're going to be dealing with much larger staff loss."
Some health care centers in the area say they're staying away from a hard requirement, including Bellevue-based Overlake Medical Center & Clinics, Seattle Children's and Virginia Mason Franciscan Health.
While those medical centers haven't shared the reasoning behind their decisions, they've said hospital leaders are "strongly encouraging" staff to get immunized, according to hospital spokespeople. At Overlake, management will review and potentially make changes to safety requirements as the pandemic continues, spokesperson Chelsea Bryant said.
The Washington State Medical Association also followed suit and recommended vaccination requirements among health care workers, according to organization president Nathan Schlicher during the Monday conference.
"Patients should be coming to the hospital expecting that they don't leave sicker," he said. "They shouldn't have to worry — are they going to get COVID from us?"
Schlicher added, "If we don't do this, I really worry what this fall is going to look like."