Washington state hospitals continue to struggle with capacity, but COVID-19 isn’t entirely to blame

SEATTLE — Hospitals across the state are in crisis mode. But despite an uptick in COVID-19 cases, the pandemic isn’t the biggest culprit.

In a briefing on Monday, the Washington State Hospital Association says that while they’re concerned about the recent increase in COVID-19 infections, the crisis is primarily due to staffing shortages and a delay in discharges.

“We are doing our best, but many of our hospitals, especially on the west side of our state from the populated areas of Pierce, King and Snohomish counties, are more strained today than really at any other point since the pandemic began,” said Taya Briley, WSHA executive vice president.

Up to 20% of patients aren’t being discharged as soon as they should be. These are typically patients that have received treatment and should now be in a nursing home or long-term care facility instead of a hospital room.

“The patients that are stuck in these hospitals are tying up thousands of nurses and other staff members who should be taking care of patients who have acute care needs,” said Briley.

Across the state, between 10% and 20% of hospital beds are being taken up by people who no longer need hospital care, according to WSHA.

Sometimes the delay is finding a guardian to approve the discharge. Other times, long-term care facilities aren’t taking on more patients.

“This is also terrible for the patients that are stuck in the hospitals,” said Briley. “These folks need to be in nursing homes and adult family homes or receiving home care services. When they are stuck in hospitals, they are unable to go outside and socialize with others, or have the kind of quality of life that they really need and deserve.”

This means that people who come to a hospital with conditions that require emergency or inpatient treatment aren’t always able to get the timely care they need.

WSHA says that the overcrowding is so bad that some hospitals are using lobbies, hallways or conference rooms to treat patients.

To address the crisis, the hospital association is asking for a change in guardianship requirements, so that patients without a “next of kin” can still be discharged on time.

They’re also asking the state for more funding to increase emergency staffing, and more support for those caring for people with special and developmental needs.

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