Hospitals across the state are full of COVID patients, prompting the Washington State Medical Association last Friday to issue a letter asking the Governor to mobilize the National Guard.
Statewide, preliminary data from the Department of Health shows that hospitals were nearly 95% full last week as the omicron variant fuels the largest COVID wave so far. Hospitals were filling at rates higher than those seen during the delta wave.
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For Dr. Nathan Schlicher, an emergency room doctor in Tacoma and member of the Washington State Medical Association (WSMA), the surge has led to his hospital running out of space, and treating people not only in rooms, but beds and even lobbies.
“I dream of the days I worked in my hallways,” he said.
His situation isn’t unique. Schlicher said hospitals across the state have canceled elective surgeries — a major tool hospitals have used during the pandemic to free up capacity — but it’s still not enough.
These procedures aren’t tummy tucks and plastic surgeries, he said, but are instead needed procedures like open heart bypass or tumor debulking procedures. Doctors are having to decide which crucial operations can wait a little longer to provide space for the influx of COVID patients.
“It’s not enough anymore,” said Schlicher.
The WSMA association letter is asking Gov. Jay Inslee to mobilize the National Guard to assist hospitals. Schlicher said soldiers could be used to free up medical workers in hospitals, even by completing tasks like cleaning rooms or running tests between floors.
It also asks Inslee to figure out ways to discharge patients who don’t need acute care more quickly. Schlicher said that 20% of beds in his hospital are full of patients who don’t need hospital care anymore, and could be discharged. A lack of beds in long-term care facilities, and roadblocks that prevent guardians from discharging patients, has led to a backlog of people waiting to be released from hospitals.
The WSMA has been talking with both the Governor’s office and the National Guard about both deploying troops, and easing discharge, but so far no concrete plans have been announced.
A spokesperson for Inslee’s office said in an email that they are reviewing what can be done.
“We are also concerned about capacity in hospitals and our staff and the Governor have had numerous conversations with them about this,” they wrote. “More to come soon.”
Schlicher said the state needs to move quickly.
“Time is of the essence,” he said. “If we wait to workshop this for a month, unfortunately that’s going to be too late.”
The omicron variant is already generating the largest wave of COVID cases in Washington state. While symptoms are generally more mild, the increase in infectiousness means more people are getting it, and more people are landing in the hospital. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington estimates that 50% of Americans will become infected in the next six weeks.