Most seeking care are unvaccinated
Facing the gut-wrenching prospect of having to ration medical care, local physicians are taking to the airwaves to help people understand what it’s like on the front lines caring for an unprecedented number of COVID patients.
Local hospitals are so overwhelmed that patients are waiting up to 12 hours to be seen in the emergency room, said Jennifer Thill, chief medical officer and emergency department physician for Mid-Valley Hospital in Omak.
Hospitals in Okanogan County — and across the state — are full, forcing physicians to start contemplating how they would make decisions if they’re not able to care for everyone, Thill said in a video recorded early this month. In the winter, Washington’s hospitals were admitting about 1,200 COVID patients a day, but that number is now 1,500, she said.
The vast majority of people seeking hospital care for COVID are unvaccinated. Those who’ve been vaccinated but who still get infected with COVID tend to be more vulnerable to the disease — either older or with compromised immune symptoms. Older people also were among the first to get vaccinated, so some of their immunity could be waning, Thill said, noting that booster shots are expected soon.
Fully vaccinated people who seek care in the emergency room are usually not that sick and can generally be sent home with medications or supplemental oxygen. But unvaccinated people are spending days or weeks in the hospital, Thill said.
The COVID surge has overwhelmed Mid-Valley’s emergency department, meaning that anyone with an urgent issue — like a heart attack or accident — faces a wait of up to 12 hours, Thill said. Patients wait on stretchers in the hallway because there’s no other place to put them, she said.
Some patients end up being boarded at Mid-Valley for several days as physicians try to find a spot in a hospital that can provide the level of care they need. But, with long waiting lists, there are usually 30 people ahead of them, Thill said.
Infectious disease specialist Mark Johnson shared his experiences caring for people critically ill with COVID at Central Washington Hospital in Wenatchee in a video produced by NCWLIFE. Virtually none of these patients had been vaccinated. More than 40% of the critically ill are age 40 or younger, Johnson said.
Vaccines are the most effective means of preventing severe illness from COVID, but other precautions, including wearing a mask, hand-washing and staying at least 6 feet from others, provide important additional protection, Thill said.
“Viruses are not technically living things — they invade living cells and hijack their machinery to get energy and replicate,” said Marta Gaglia, an associate professor of molecular biology and microbiology at the Tufts University School of Medicine. Driven to multiply, viruses will find ways to infect other living organisms and start the process over again.
“A virus will make hundreds to thousands of copies of itself every time it is in a cell,” Gaglia said. “The chance of getting a mutant is high just because there’s so many replications happening.”
“In my opinion, we are asking the immune system of fully vaccinated people to do too much for our communities,” Central Washington’s Johnson said. Since only half of the eligible population is vaccinated, and children under age 12 are not eligible for the vaccine, the virus has a more than ample supply of hosts.
“And we can reasonably predict that, until we get enough of us vaccinated, that this virus will continue to mutate, as these RNA respiratory viruses do. It will continue to circle back through our community and continue to affect susceptible populations for the next 12 to 18 months at these pandemic levels, as we try to shove this virus into a more endemic, milder disease,” Johnson said.
The Delta variant has been especially successful in taking advantage of the opportunity to mutate. It is markedly more contagious — researchers have found that people infected with Delta have 1,032 times more virus in their respiratory tract than those who had the Alpha variant, Johnson said.