WA Hospitals stretch to care for Idaho COVID-19 patients

Washington hospitals are full, working together to shift patients around the state during the recent COVID-19 surge. Now there is a new demand on resources: COVID-19 patients from Idaho seeking care in eastern Washington. Hospital leaders said there is little room to help.

“We are keeping our heads above water — but barely,” said Dr. Chris Baliga, an infectious disease doctor at Virginia Mason in Seattle. “We’re stretched. Do we get transfers from Idaho? Yes, we do. Are we helping? Yes. But is our capacity limited? Yes.”

Hospitals across the state are canceling surgeries and procedures to free up hospital beds for COVID-19 patients.

According to the Washington State Hospital Association, 95% of hospitalized COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated. Those who are vaccinated have other medical conditions; they’re transplant patients or undergoing cancer treatment.

Now patients from Idaho are trickling into Washington’s already overwhelmed health care system.

“The impact that Idaho is having on the eastern part of our state is having some ripple effect over into western Washington,” said Taya Briley, the executive vice president of the Washington State Hospital Association.

Washington has an agreement between hospitals to work together to shift patients around. They don’t have the same arrangement with hospitals out of state, but doctors feel called to do what they can.

In northern Idaho, things are so bad that they’ve declared “crisis standards of care.” They’ll need to decide which patients get lifesaving care and which patients do not.

Hospital leaders said hospital capacity is less about space and more about staffing.

Federal Emergency Management Agency sent in military doctors and nurses to help in Idaho. At this point, it doesn’t appear Washington hospitals will be getting reinforcements.

The Washington State Hospital Association reached out to the National Guard. “We don’t think there will be relief from the National Guard. We have made inquiries about that with the state, and they really feel like those resources are deployed elsewhere and won’t be available to us,” said Briley.

The Washington State Nurses Association, SEIU Healthcare 1199NW, and UFCW 21, which represent about 71,000 nurses and health care workers, confirmed the staffing shortage started long before COVID-19.

Lidia Abushet is a nurse and member of SEIU Healthcare 1199NW. “Now, a lot of hospitals are hiring traveling nurses, which costs a lot. Why not pay the people you already have?” said Abushet.

They said to mitigate the crisis, hospitals could retain and adequately pay current staff and fill empty positions.

Gov. Jay Inslee expressed his frustration with Idaho leaders last week. There is no mask mandate, and the vaccination rate of residents 12 and older sits at around 45%. “We certainly need our friends in Idaho government to do more to preserve their citizen’s health because we know their medical crisis is becoming our problem,” said Inslee.

Doctors and nurses who have been caring for patients more than 18 months into the pandemic have trouble understanding why people have not got vaccinated.

“The majority of our patients are not vaccinated. The majority of our patients who expire are not vaccinated, and I always sit there and wonder, ‘What if they had gotten vaccinated?’” said Dr. Baliga.