South County Fire paramedic Larry Hadland, left, hands a proof of vaccination card while emergency medical technician Kim Sharpe vaccinates Abel Cordova, 63, at his home on April 20, 2021. Cordova was unable to travel for a vaccination. Greg Gilbert |The Seattle Times

County public health director: unvaccinated population putting strain on county’s hospitals

The vast majority of COVID-19 cases during this fifth wave of the pandemic is coming from unvaccinated people, and it’s putting a major strain on Grays Harbor County’s health care system.

“We have reached the point in this pandemic where those who are unvaccinated are contributing to a health care capacity crisis at our local hospitals,” said Grays Harbor Public Health Director Mike McNickle. “Right now, people who are in need of critical care are being diverted to regional hospitals, who are also diverting patients.”

At a press conference on Wednesday, Aug. 25, public health COVID-19 response communications officer Maranatha Hay said COVID hospitalizations are rising sharply, and recently those among people in the 40-59 age range “are pulling ahead in a dramatic, steep way, breaking away from the rest of the (age ranges),” said Hay.

The county’s two hospitals had representatives at the press conference, speaking about the toll the wave is taking on the health care system and particularly health care workers.

“We’ve been seeing a record number of patients in both our Urgent Care Clinic and our Emergency Department,” said Nichole Pas with Summit Pacific Medical Center in Elma. “We currently have quite a few patients who are boarding in our Emergency Department waiting for transport, sometimes for days at a time, which is definitely not ideal for the patient who’s needing a higher level of care.”

Pas added, “We’re seeing an increase in COVID positive cases. In the last 24 hours, we saw about 40 COVID positives, and two weeks ago the daily count would be 2-5 a day.”

The hospital was not on a “divert status” as of Aug. 25, but was part of the previous night and day before.

“Our primary problem is just that we have more patients coming in for acute or inpatient care than we have beds to care for them,” said Pas.

She said the hospital is looking at ways to increase its capacity, which includes looking for more staffing. This could include retired nurses, medical assistants, and providers — “send them our way,” said Pas.

It’s the same story at Harbor Regional Health Community Hospital in Aberdeen, “The biggest thing we’re facing right now is staffing shortages,” said spokesman Chris Majors. On Aug. 25, “we had seven COVID positive patients in the hospital, which is the highest levels we’ve seen since the Stafford Creek incidents. So we’re seeing the highest levels of COVID patients from the community we’ve seen yet in the pandemic, so that’s very concerning.”

The hospital is hiring in dozens of positions and having a difficult time finding qualified, or even interested, applicants. As a result, existing staff is picking up shifts and supporting each other as best they can.

“It’s been going on for so long that the people are really, you know, they’re getting burned out,” said Majors. “And so as we see these levels go up, it’s just applying more and more pressure to an already strained system.”

On the morning of Aug. 25, Community Hospital had one bed available. Often, because of staffing, it may have zero. Majors and Pas agreed this puts a strain on local EMS services as well, as patients need to be taken to other facilities for more immediate treatment. With hospitals across the state stretched thin, this can require some travel, tying up EMS units for extended periods of time.

Vaccination is the best fight against COVID-19 and the Delta variant making up the lion’s share of the current wave.

“Do you have or know someone with underlying health issues? If you do, the Delta variant and its effects should be a very big concern for you and them because there is a chance that at any given point during the week, there are no beds available at our local hospitals in Grays Harbor County,” said McNickle.

“It is well documented that our hospital staff — nurses, doctors and others — are exhausted, burned out, and worked to the bone. In fact, there is a staff shortage in both hospitals.”

McNickle continued, “Going to the hospital for a health emergency may result in you being transported to another hospital far from home for care. This distressing situation will only become worse unless we, as a community, take steps to protect ourselves, our families and our friends by voluntarily getting vaccinated, wearing masks, and following strong personal hygiene practices. We all have a part to play and I hope you will help us get through this most difficult time.”

Currently, just a little more than half of the county’s total population is fully vaccinated. The Delta variant is responsible for more than 95% of current new cases statewide, and more than 90% of the new cases in recent weeks are among the unvaccinated.

The spike in cases is also putting a strain on the public health resource center.

“Just last week we received approximately 2,000 calls in the span of five days, so we are very, very busy, but still keeping up with those calls,” said Resource Center Branch Director Haley Furstenwerth. “We are also increasing our capacity and adding operators to answer your questions.”

A lot of call volume is related to booster shots that might be available in late September. There are no dates and times set up for the Moderna and Pfizer shots that will likely be available then at the mass vaccination clinic.

“We’re still in the beginning stages of planning. The estimated rollout is September,” said Furstenwerth.

She said now people are trying to sign up for a booster in public health’s current vaccination clinics, “but we cannot offer them that booster dose. It is unfortunately jamming up our clinic appointment availability.”

More information on boosters is forthcoming.

Hay went over the current case and hospitalization numbers on Aug. 25, including a rate of new cases in the county per 100,000 population over a two week span on par with the state’s.

“For the state, it’s 501.3; this has really risen dramatically over the last couple of weeks,” said Hay. “For folks in Grays Harbor, we are right on par if not ahead of that at 547.4.”

During the peak of the pandemic in the county earlier in the year, which included a major outbreak at Stafford Creek Correctional Center, case rates were around 600. Without that singular large-scale outbreak, the numbers are approaching that level now.

There were 261 new cases reported in the county the week of Aug. 19-25, bringing the pandemic total to 5,579. The number of hospitalizations grew by 10 for the week to 300 total. There were two new deaths reported, bringing the total to 87.