COVID, staffing burden Olympic Peninsula hospitals

The hospital system on the North Olympic Peninsula is strained by the increase of COVID-19 patients and staffing shortages.

Olympic Medical Center in Port Angeles and Sequim and Forks Community Hospital on the West End are seeing the worst of it, said Dr. Allison Berry, health officer for Clallam and Jefferson counties.

Jefferson Healthcare also is experiencing strain due to staffing shortages and has four COVID-19 patients hospitalized currently. It has been seeing an average of two to three COVID-19 patients a day, said Amy Yaley, hospital spokesperson.

“That is new for us because, a year ago, we didn’t have people sick in the hospital with [COVID] — maybe one here or there, but not consistently and not multiple by any means,” Yaley said. “You pair that with increased patient activity — because it’s not only COVID patients — and with our limited staffing, and we’re facing many challenges on that front.

“We’re having to get creative and think outside the box, and we’re good at that. It’s what we do.”

All 10 of Olympic Medical Center’s Intensive Care Unit (ICU) beds are full — although not just with COVID-19 patients — and there is no ICU in Forks, Berry said.

“We’re seeing really critical shortages of staffing and beds at Olympic Medical Center at this point,” Berry said. “We’re experiencing severe hospital strain at this point.”

“For the public, things that we can do about that is if you don’t need emergency medical care, it’s really important to not use the emergency medical system right now. Certainly if you do, if you’re experiencing severe symptoms such as shortness of breath, chest pain and things like that, then that’s what the ER is for,” she continued.

“Everything else, we should try to make sure that we utilize other avenues. So, use our outpatient providers, our walk-in clinics and things like that. Anything else that doesn’t need medical evaluation, we should hold off on that.”

Some COVID-19 patients have been going directly to a hospital emergency room. Berry urged those with mild symptoms but in a high-risk group to contact their primary care providers to discuss possible treatment options so as to cut their chances of being hospitalized down the road.

As of Thursday, 14 people were hospitalized in Clallam County; six of them in the (ICU).

Four people were hospitalized in Jefferson County as of Thursday, Berry and Yaley said.

The strain on hospitals locally is compounded by the limited ICU beds in other counties across the state.

Those include Kitsap, King and Pierce, three primary counties to receive Peninsula patients transferred for more intensive care, Berry said.

On Thursday, Clallam County added 87 new confirmed cases of COVID-19. Jefferson County added five.

Clallam County continues to set new records for its case rate, recording its newest high of 593 per 100,000 population for the past two weeks as of Thursday.

Berry strongly urges residents to avoid indoor gatherings and spaces when possible, and when in them, to wear face masks and practice social distancing.

She continues to urge all eligible residents to get vaccinated for COVID-19 as soon as possible.

The record numbers of COVID-19 cases on the Peninsula have raised concerns about schools opening for the fall semester.

Safety measures are in place to limit potential virus spread and officials do not want to close schools again, Berry said.

“We are still committed to reopening the schools, because we do feel confident that we can do so safely,” Berry said. “We have really demonstrated how to open schools safely and have classes safely.

“But, I think the challenge right now will be the kind of support that we normally offer the schools as far as contact tracing will have to be somewhat more limited, just because we’re stretched in every possible direction right now.”

County public health departments are still working with the schools to make sure they have rapid COVID-19 testing support, prevention protocol support and other guidance, Berry said.

“We’re hopeful that we’ll be open well,” Berry said. “I am worried about the low vaccination rate among children, as we are likely to see cases as we go into the fall.”

Clallam County has confirmed a total of 2,431 cases of COVID-19 since the pandemic began. Jefferson County has confirmed at total of 659 cases.

Twenty people have died from the virus in Clallam County, while four have died in Jefferson County.

Since the beginning of February, 16.6 percent of new COVID-19 cases in Jefferson County have been among fully vaccinated residents as of Monday, according to county data.

During that same time period, 11.2 percent of new COVID-19 cases in Clallam County have been among fully vaccinated residents as of Monday, according to county data.

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Jefferson County reporter Zach Jablonski can be reached at 360-385-2335, ext. 5, or at [email protected]

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