COVID hospitalization surge pushes health systems to brink

SEATTLE (AP) — Hospital leaders, doctors and public health officials said Thursday that a spike of COVID-19 hospitalizations is pushing health care systems in Washington state closer than they’ve ever been to a crisis point.

The effects of the omicron variant’s rapid transmission were coming into focus as hospital leaders and health officials detailed trends of severe COVID-19 cases, which had been in decline since the peak of the delta variant last year, The Seattle Times reported.

So far, King County and western Washington have experienced the brunt of the omicron spike, but the rest of the state isn’t far behind, state health officials said in a Thursday news briefing.

At University of Washington Medicine’s four campuses — three in Seattle and one in Renton — COVID-19 hospitalizations are higher than they’ve been at any other point in the pandemic, according to Dr. John Lynch, medical director of Harborview Medical Center’s infection control program.

There are early signs that these new infections are causing less severe illness, especially in vaccinated people, Dr. Francis Riedo, medical director for infection control and prevention at EvergreenHealth in Kirkland, said during a separate briefing with hospital leaders.

However, Riedo called it a numbers game.

“A small percentage of a million people is a huge number, still,” he said.

As of Thursday, King County was averaging about 31 COVID-19 hospitalizations per day, a 76% increase in the past week.

Lynch urged Washingtonians not to visit hospital emergency rooms for COVID-19 tests or mild virus treatment, as health care systems are quickly reaching the point at which they can’t handle many more patients.

Factors further challenging hospitals include rising worker infection rates — forcing workers into quarantine — delayed care, obstacles discharging patients who no longer need hospital care, and limited testing access statewide.

“We are entering, I think, the most challenging phase of this pandemic, period,” Lynch said.

Unvaccinated people continue to suffer the worst symptoms, with a chance of dying 15 times higher than those who are vaccinated, state health leaders said Thursday. Important to note, Lynch said, is that vaccinated Washingtonians are still becoming infected, though at a “much lower proportion.”

Those who have received booster shots are the most protected from both infection and hospitalization, he added. The U.S. said this week that everyone 12 and older should get a COVID-19 booster as soon as they’re eligible.

Two state medical and physician associations on Thursday called on Gov. Jay Inslee and state Health Secretary Dr. Umair A. Shah to declare a statewide crisis, in hopes of opening up emergency resources for hospitals.