As COVID-19 hospitalization rates continue to decline in Washington state, officials fear all the hard work in surviving the Delta wave could soon be lost to the next variant, Omicron.
Statewide, the daily average of confirmed COVID hospitalizations as of Monday was at 694, down from 806 a week ago, and down from 1,013 daily average a month ago, according to Cassie Sauer, CEO of the Washington State Hospital Association. Sauer spoke during a Monday briefing with reporters.
Ventilator use, on the other hand, is up with the seven day average at 117, compared with last week's average of 110, with the state still seeing about 10-15 hospitalized COVID deaths on average a day.
"We're definitely in a pretty serious place of worry today," Sauer said, noting the news of the Omicron variant that has been detected in various countries.
"I think all of our panelists and I agree wholeheartedly that Omicron is in the US. I think there's almost no chance that it's not," Sauer noted.
Dr. Alex Greninger is assistant professor in the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology at the UW School of Medicine and assistant director of the Clinical Virology Laboratories at the University of Washington Medical Center.
During Monday's briefing, Greninger noted his labs already are running tests on recent positive results to detect any sign of the new variant. So far, none has been detected.
"We have sort of the best eyes out there when it comes to looking for these variants and reporting on them," he said. "So I think, you know, as soon as Omicron is here, we'll be one of the first to pick it up."
The panelists agreed it was just a matter of time before the first Washington case would be reported.
"I would not be at all surprised by Omicron cases being reported here in the U.S. in the next few days or in the very near future," said Dr. Seth Cohen, medical director of infection prevention, University of Washington Medical Center.
The worry now is that if another spike takes off, it would add to the already stressed hospitals still running behind in elective surgeries, which, Sauer noted, includes serious procedures such as heart valve replacements and removals of slow-growing cancer tumors.
"We have not gotten back to normal yet from the Delta variant as far as outpatient and particularly inpatient surgeries," said Greg Repetti, president of MultiCare Deaconess and Valley Hospital in Spokane.
Repetti estimated his health system wouldn't catch up with postponed elected inpatient procedures until "well into the first quarter of 2021," and that's without any COVID spikes in hospitalizations. He said his system is working Saturdays to help catch up on outpatient procedures.
Dr. Connie Davis, regional vice president and chief medical officer with Skagit Regional Health, offered a similar time line, with an estimate of a couple of months to catch up.
"Really, quite frankly, it's staffing," she added.
The stress point for Davis' health system and elsewhere in the state has been lack of beds with a percentage taken up by patients not able to be released because of lack of availability on the other end for respite care, dementia care and behavioral health, particularly pediatric.
"COVID hasn't helped the mental status of pediatric patients," Davis said. "In our community right now, we have limited services. ... So the bottom line is the emergency room is really the only location that is available for distressed families or others to drop people off."
A spike in cases from Thanksgiving, officials noted, could start later this week.
The surprise nature of COVID might mean a dramatic uptick isn't seen, given past waves.
"What was interesting is last year, most of the increase was during the month of November prior to Thanksgiving," Greninger said.
"The spike that happened after Thanksgiving between Thanksgiving and Christmas sort of actually paled in comparison to what happened from the late October and November" last year, he noted.
"I do think that there'll be a little spike after Thanksgiving, but compared to what's happened before it might actually be a little bit minor honestly, but we don't know what to expect."