OKANOGAN – Skyrocketing COVID-19 cases Okanogan County led to overflowing emergency rooms at the county’s three hospitals several times last week and prompted medical agencies to issue a warning that not everyone may get the level of care they need.
Mid-Valley in Omak, Three Rivers in Brewster and North Valley in Tonasket all exceeded capacity of bed space in their emergency rooms multiple times last week, said a joint statement from the hospitals, Okanogan County Public Health, Family Health Centers, LifeLine Ambulance and Aero Methow Rescue Service.
“The current COVID-19 surge has stretched resources to the limit and there are no beds available at hospitals elsewhere in Washington state,” said the Sept. 10 statement. “Patients cannot be transferred and are being cared for in the emergency department. There are very few resources or staff to care for incoming patients.”
As a result, the health district, hospitals and first responders are asking county residents to assess their symptoms and go to an emergency department only in an emergency. Those not needing emergency care are asked to contact their health care provider to make an appointment and receive guidance on how to manage health conditions.
The situation is similar statewide.
“Hospital capacity is currently stressed across the State of Washington,” said the state Department of Health.
Okanogan County Public Health on Sept. 10 reported 54 new cases of COVID-19 as of Sept. 9.
The mid-valley area is seeing the highest numbers, with 20 new cases in Omak and 12 in Okanogan as of Sept. 9. Other new cases that day were Oroville, 11; Brewster and Tonasket, 3 each, and Nespelem, Pateros, Riverside, Twisp and Winthrop, one each.
The overall incidence rate – number of cases per 100,000 population per rolling 14-day period – was 1,245. Among unvaccinated people, the incidence rate was 2,225, while for vaccinated people it was 293.
Before the latest surge, the county’s previous high incidence rate was 989.9 as of July 31, 2020. At that time, it was the highest rate in the state.
According to the health district, 51.1 percent of the county’s population was vaccinated against COVID as of Sept. 8.
Under the current situation:
-County hospitals, doctors and nurses are strained to the limit.
-Waiting times at emergency departments are extremely long.
-Some patients who normally would be admitted to a hospital are being cared for in the emergency department.
-Hospitals are operating under contingency care and are on the verge of moving into crisis standards of care.
According to the health care providers, crisis standards of care means there are not enough space, supplies or staff to give the best care to every patient in the hospital. When hospital systems are overwhelmed, decisions must be made about who gets the resources available.
“During crisis standards of care, providers must shift away from maximizing the best care for each patient to maximizing care for the most people,” said the agencies. “This means some patients might not get the lifesaving care they need. When there are too many patients, hospitals need to help as many people as possible.”
The state Department of Health said it has adopted and plans to use the ethical framework developed by the National Academy of Medicine – in other words, the crisis standards of care scenario.
While the department said the goal is to prevent having to use crisis standards of care anywhere in Washington, that reality has hit in Okanogan County.
Wenatchee’s Confluence Health/Central Washington Hospital, to which Okanogan County patients most often are transferred, had 50 COVID patients as of Sept. 10. Of those, nine were in intensive care, 36 in isolation and 11 on ventilators.
Nineteen of the patients were from Chelan County, 10 from Okanogan County, nine from Douglas County, seven from Grant County, and one each from Ferry, Yakima, Lincoln and Asotin counties, and one from Uinta, Utah.
Ferry County also is seeing a surge. Health care providers with Newport Hospital and Health Services issued a statement Sept. 10 shared by Northeast Tri-County Health District, which serves Ferry, Stevens and Pend Oreille counties.
The providers urged people to get vaccinated and wear masks, and offered information about COVID-19.
“The first thing we know is that COVID-19 is a serious infection for many people and our medical community is overwhelmed,” said the providers. “There have been many days in the past weeks where our local hospital is full caring for COVID patients and there are no available intensive care beds in the Pacific Northwest where we can send the very sick.
“The large hospitals in our area have converted their post-surgical units into intensive care units and have stopped even most cardiac surgeries from proceeding in order to care for those infected. We, in the medical field, are past our capacity, both literally in terms of space to put the sick and figuratively. We are tired and running on empty.”
Okanogan County health agencies said residents can help the situation by:
-Going to the emergency room only for emergencies.
-Avoiding risky behaviors and activities that could result in a trip to the hospital.
-Getting routine care from primary care providers for existing conditions.
-Being protected from COVID-19 by getting vaccinated and wearing a mask in public, crowded spaces.
State and the Newport providers echoed that.
“The three available COVID-19 vaccines in the U.S. are safe for almost everyone,” said the Newport providers. “The vaccines do not change or interact with your DNR in any way, nor do they contain microchips or harmful chemicals. The vaccines will not give you a COVID infection. Further, there is no evidence that the vaccines will cause future problems with fertility.”
As of Sept. 9, Ferry County’s incidence rate was 784, with 61 new cases reported that day.
As of Sept. 10, 77 northeast region residents were hospitalized in intensive care in one of the region’s hospitals, according to the Northeast Tri-County Health District. Those include Ferry County Memorial, Republic; Newport; Mount Carmel and St. Joseph’s, both in Stevens County; Deaconess, Holy Family, Sacred Heart and St. Luke’s Rehabilitation, all in Spokane, and Kootenai Health in Idaho.
On Sept. 10, the Colville Confederated Tribes reported 63 active cases, with 91 people in quarantine. By reservation district, the active cases included 27 in Omak, 18 in Nespelem, five in Keller and 13 in Inchelium.
State Department of Health officials said they are working with state, federal and private partners to mitigate Washington’s health care surge by accessing additional volunteer and contracted resources, coordinating information sharing, and supporting efforts to shift patients to health care facilities that can best support their care.