4th wave of COVID-19 hospitalizations hits Washington State: NPR
Sydney Porter of Bellevue, Wash., Receives her COVID-19 vaccination from Kristine Gill with the Seattle Fire Department Mobile Vaccination Teams prior to the game between the Seattle Mariners and the Baltimore Orioles at T-Mobile Park on May 5 in Seattle. A coronavirus surge in late spring filled hospitals in the Seattle subway areas. Steph Chambers / Getty Images hide the caption
Steph Chambers / Getty Images
Steph Chambers / Getty Images
As the coronavirus outbreak recedes in much of the United States, the Pacific Northwest has become an outlier – grabbed by a spike in late spring that filled hospitals in the Seattle and Portland subway areas.
In recent weeks, the governors of both states have put a brake on their reopening plans to counter the rapid spread of the contagious B.1.1.7. Variant of the coronavirus, first identified in the UK
In Washington state, hospital admissions for COVID-19 have been higher during this current surge than any other time except last winter.
“We have seen a distinct fourth wave of hospitalizations,” says Dr. Michael Anderson, Chief Medical Officer of Virginia Mason Franciscan Health, which has hospitals across Washington state. “The rise in the approvals curves was frightening in that it was falling off so quickly.”
“Very, very” busy hospitals, restrictions remain
Similar to national trends, the patients being hospitalized in Washington are mostly young and middle-aged adults – not older Americans, who are mostly vaccinated at the time.
“It keeps our system very, very busy,” says Dr. Michael Myint, infectious disease epidemiologist who leads the COVID-19 response at MultiCare, a hospital system based in Tacoma, Washington.
The average age of COVID-19 patients on MultiCare has dropped by about a decade, which has made this recent surge easier to manage, as younger patients tend to have shorter hospital stays than older ones.
Washington governor Jay Inslee has taken a statewide hiatus to ease pandemic restrictions and last month introduced stricter rules for several regions, including the state’s second largest county south of Seattle.
“We are dealing with a very severe wave which, without this vaccination background, would probably be worse than the third wave,” says Dr. Joshua Schiffer, an infectious disease expert at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
There are several likely explanations for why Oregon and Washington were hit by a spike in late spring: how quickly the B.1.1.7 strain was declining, the cooler weather still keeping people indoors, and the region’s relative success in repelling of the virus at the beginning of the year pandemic, which now makes the population more vulnerable – at least until more people are fully vaccinated.
“It is noteworthy that the states with a lower degree of infection had a fourth wave. Some pre-existing immunity from infection helped certain states with this fourth wave,” says Schiffer.
Washington health officials say there are early signs that new cases may have peaked, but the outlook remains uncertain, especially given the unknowns through which other variants – not just the B.1.1.7 – may spread undetected.
“We may be on a plateau now and the big open question is how the variants are connected.” asks Dr. Myint from MultiCare. “The only way we can blunt this fourth wave and then overcome it is really with vaccines.”
Vaccine demand is slowing, another boost in rural laundry.
Washington ranks well in the top half of the state for the number of people fully vaccinated and the number of re-vaccinations. More than half of adults in the state had at least one dose, and in the greater Seattle area that number climbs to about 70%.
But as in much of the country, the rate of vaccination seems to be slowing.
“If we post new dates now, they’ll be available a week later. We don’t fill them out. We can’t deliver the vaccine we have,” says Dr. Anderson of Virginia Mason Franciscan Health.
Public health executives are trying to be more creative with how they get shots in the arms, and are hiring companies like Uber and Lyft to offer free and discounted trips to vaccination clinics.
The challenge of getting people vaccines – and convincing them to get them – is only heightened in rural parts of the state.
In White Salmon, Washington, the vaccine tent outside of the NorthShore Medical Group does not draw crowds, despite state data showing that much of the adult population in the area did not receive at least one shot.
Scott Kotlarz, who just received his second shot there, says he personally knows two people in the state who have died during this latest wave of COVID-19, including one who was a distant relative.
“She made up her mind not to get the vaccine,” says Kotlarz. “Now it has actually touched the family – that was my first experience with it.”
NorthShore has two clinics in southern Washington that hug the Columbia River Gorge, about four hours from Seattle.
“We moved from the poor looking for vaccines to vaccines looking for weapons,” says Dr. Chris Faison, a family doctor there. “We all know this is going to be a less mass vaccination, over-efficient process, and it will really come down to one-on-one and actually reaching out to patients in the community.”
This is an expensive proposition for a rural basic service practice – one the Biden government is looking to nurture by investing nearly $ 1 billion in rural America’s COVID-19 response.
Without additional funding, many rural practices would have to reduce their vaccination efforts because the time and manpower for a piecemeal vaccination campaign are not financially feasible.
Faison cited a NorthShore vaccination clinic recently held at a nearby Catholic church that serves the Hispanic community.
It’s an example of how providers should reach people who may not have access or information about the vaccine, but ultimately only a handful of people got a shot over several hours.
“It’s worth paying,” says Faison, “and it even helps the people who aren’t shot because they see and hear that you are part of the community, that you are there and that you care.”