Facilities overloaded with unvaccinated
As COVID skyrockets in Okanogan County and across the state, public health officials are worried that clinics and hospitals won’t have adequate resources to carry out their fundamental mission of caring for patients.
“The biggest issue right now is overburdening our health care system. The same people who chose not to get vaccinated are overburdening [the] system,” Okanogan County Community Health Director Lauri Jones told the county commissioners on Tuesday, Aug. 24.
Last week, Central Washington Hospital in Wenatchee was full and couldn’t take any more transfers – for COVID, heart attacks, strokes or a car accident, Jones said. That means people are waiting in small, local hospitals, where they can’t get the level of care they need, she said.
When smaller hospitals have to care for people who are seriously ill, it adds to the stress on staff, since these facilities aren’t designed to provide that level of care, Three Rivers Hospital CEO Scott Graham said at a meeting of the Okanogan County Coalition for Health Improvement on Thursday (Aug. 26).
In regional hospitals in north central Washington, the issue is staffing, more than physical space or beds, Jones said. Central Washington Hospital has 190 beds, but only enough people to staff 140 of them, she said.
As of Aug. 31, Central Washington was caring for 37 people with COVID, seven in the ICU and five on a ventilator. When someone is sick enough to require a ventilator, the outcome is not good – more than half of these people don’t survive, Okanogan County Health Officer James Wallace said.
In Okanogan County hospitals last week, there were five COVID patients at Mid-Valley Hospital in Omak, four at Three Rivers Hospital in Brewster, and one at North Valley Hospital in Tonasket. These hospitals transferred six very sick patients in the past week, Jones said.
The hospital emergency in Washington has gotten so bad that health care providers may be forced to implement what are called crisis standards of care, which determine who gets care – and who doesn’t, Jones said.
The state is determined not to have to resort to such drastic measures. There are plans to transfer patients to a hospital where they can receive appropriate care, even if there’s no room in the ICU, Graham said.
Okanogan County Commissioner Andy Hover said he was concerned that the governor’s requirement that all health care workers be vaccinated will only exacerbate the crisis. “You have an overburdened medical system, and then you force something upon somebody where you’re going to lose staff – I don’t know how many,” Hover said.
These same health care providers have been required to have vaccines against measles, hepatitis and other diseases, Jones said. “Do I want someone caring for me in a hospital setting who’s not vaccinated? Absolutely not,” she said.
Health care providers are also seeing an increase in serious COVID cases among young people. Central Washington Hospital was caring for three COVID patients under the age of 30, which is unusual, Jones said. Four of the patients at Central Washington had been vaccinated, but none of those were in the ICU, Jones said.
Vaccines remain the most effective tool to combat the virus. Masks also provide important protection, Wallace said.
The commissioners also brought some personal experience to the situation. “I had it. For 10 days, I felt really, really bad,” Hover said. “And I’m in pretty good shape and pretty young. There was a point where I thought, ‘I wonder if I got the vaccine, if I would not have felt so bad…. I thought it would be really bad if I had to go to the hospital because I didn’t go get vaccinated.”
Hover emphasized people’s personal responsibility to keep themselves, their families and their community safe, instead of forcing people to follow rules. Still, people need to be aware of the ramifications when hospitals are full and people are ahead of you in line, he said.
Okanogan County Commissioner Jim DeTro was silent for most of the discussion but, after Jones left the meeting, he complained that Jones was “always pointing the finger at the unvaccinated” and suggested that Okanogan County Public Health was getting “an unbelievable amount of money” as a result of the pandemic.
Okanogan County cases
Cases in Okanogan County are near their highest rate in the 18 months of the pandemic. Active cases in the county quadrupled in the past two weeks, Okanogan County Health Officer James Wallace said.
Even more worrying is the fact that COVID is spreading throughout the county, Wallace said. Last year’s outbreaks were more localized, whereas cases are now occurring everywhere, fueled by large indoor gatherings and close contact, he said.
Last week, the county recorded 49 new infections in a single day. Only three days have surpassed that – two last summer and one in December, Wallace said.
In the eight days ending Aug. 30, the county recorded 254 new cases, including 10 in Twisp, four in Winthrop, one in Carlton, and two in Methow. In the previous eight days, the county had 117 cases.
While cases have been widespread across the county, the largest number by far is in Omak, which recorded 93 cases in the past eight days.
More than half of the recent cases were in the county’s youngest residents. Fifty-seven of the cases were in people ages zero to 19, and 87 cases in those 20 to 39.
Children under the age of 12 are not eligible for the COVID vaccine.
Public Health reported another death last week, of a person exposed to COVID by a close relation, bringing the number of people the county has lost to the disease to 40.
“It’s tragic to me,” Okanogan County Community Health Director Lauri Jones said. “No one should have to die from this. We want to keep people safe. We aren’t the ones that made this political. If public health would have been allowed to do what public health does, we wouldn’t be in this mess.”
Okanogan County Public Health has warned people not to use Ivermectin to prevent or treat COVID-19. Ivermectin is an antiparasitic drug used in humans and animals.
Although it is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of some parasites and skin conditions, evidence shows ivermectin is ineffective against COVID-19. The side effects can be potentially dangerous, Public Health said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a health advisory after seeing a rise in retail pharmacies dispensing of ivermectin, along with the use of veterinary formulations available over the counter – but not intended for human use.
Overdoses and adverse effects associated with the misuse of ivermectin are increasing, the CDC said.