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Washington hospitals operating in 'contingency care' as COVID-19 cases surge

COVID-19 hospitalizations may be plateauing, but patients on ventilators have increased over the last week, according to hospital officials.

SEATTLE — Washington state hospitals say they are operating under "contingency care" as health care facilities continue to grapple with elevated numbers of COVID-19 patients.

"We are keeping our head above water, but barely," Dr. Christopher Baliga, a Virginia Mason Franciscan Health infectious disease specialist, said during a briefing Monday. "We’ve reduced surgeries. We’re not operating normally."

While Washington state is not yet operating at crisis standards of care, which is when hospitals must deny lifesaving treatment to one patient in order to give it to another, hospital officials said the state of the health care system is fragile right now.

"Things are still very bad," said Washington State Hospital Association (WSHA) Executive Vice President Taya Briley.

Briley said the state is doing everything it can to avoid crisis standards of care, which Idaho recently activated.

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Washington hospitals have absorbed some patients from Idaho, which Briley said was having "some ripple effect on western Washington." And while Briley pointed out that level loading among hospitals is an everyday practice, Baliga said hospitals' capacity to take in out-of-state patients right now is "limited."

As of Sept. 13, Washington hospitals are treating 1,673 COVID-19 patients, which is similar to last week. The data may indicate Washington is at the beginning of a plateau in COVID-19 hospitalizations, but it's too early to know the impact of recent big events, such as fairs and Labor Day, according to Briley.

The number of patients on ventilators has also increased, which Briley said was consistent with the course of COVID-19. This week there are 260 patients on ventilators, which is nine more patients than last week.

Most of the recent hospitalizations continue to be driven by the unvaccinated, who make up more than 95% of current patients. Vaccinated patients in the hospital typically have an underlying condition, such as being immunocompromised due to cancer or an organ transplant, according to Briley.

Hospital officials praised the statewide outdoor mask mandate for large events, which went into effect Monday and requires everyone regardless of vaccination status to wear a face-covering at outdoor events with 500 or more attendees.

Also notably, a number of large venues in King County announced last Tuesday they’d be requiring patrons to provide proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test prior to entry.

King County also announced it is working on a new policy to require COVID-19 vaccinations for many non-essential businesses along with a verification system that businesses could use to verify customers’ vaccination statuses.

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