Exhausted health care workers tell of virus surge

Jefferson strained; Clallam on verge of collapse

PORT TOWNSEND — A deeply fatigued Dr. Tracie Harris gave what she admitted were “entirely unprepared comments” Tuesday morning.

“This is my 14th day in a row,” of caring for patients at Jefferson Healthcare, Harris began.

As the hospitalist medical director at Jefferson Healthcare hospital, she gave a short, impassioned briefing to the county board of commissioners.

“The kicker here that you need to hear,” she said, is that not only is the hospital filled with COVID-19 patients, but also that the number has gone down in recent days because “we lost some.”

Six people have died in Jefferson County from COVID-19; in Clallam County, 29 have died from the disease.

Since the end of August, 146 more cases have been reported in Jefferson, while 108 people are in isolation with active COVID.

Harris added she has never seen the hospital strained to this level.

“I trained in San Francisco. The AIDS pandemic didn’t look like this,” she said.

Jefferson Healthcare Chief Medical Officer Dr. Joe Mattern, who lost his father to COVID-19 last year, added his comments to Tuesday’s meeting.

“If you want to have a functional community,” he said, the residents of the community must sustain the health care system, the schools and the businesses.

That’s done, Mattern said, by as many people as possible getting immunized.

“There is scientific consensus,” he said, that the more people are vaccinated, the more the whole community is protected.

“As leaders, you’ve got to do what will protect the frailest people in the community,” he told commissioners Kate Dean, Greg Brotherton and Heidi Eisenhour.

The three commissioners expressed their support for the Jefferson Healthcare doctors and for Dr. Allison Berry, the health officer for Jefferson and Clallam counties, who also spoke during Tuesday’s meeting.

“We are seeing strain in Jefferson [County]. We’re seeing borderline collapse in Clallam,” at Olympic Medical Center, Berry said.

The decision to be immunized is “not about ‘us.’ It’s about everyone else around us,” she added.

“The No. 1 reason to get vaccinated is to protect your neighbors,” including elders whose immune systems cannot respond as strongly, and to the children younger than 12 who aren’t yet eligible for immunization.

Berry noted, too, that the vaccine types available now have been in development for years, long before the onset of the pandemic.

“These are heavily vetted vaccines,” she said, studied at length before they were made available.

When asked about social-media influencers who claim a good diet and exercise will prevent the disease, Berry emphasized those practices do nothing to stop the virus.

“It doesn’t honestly care how healthy you are,” she said adding that recently a Clallam County COVID victim in his 20s had to be put on a ventilator.

The medical-care system on the North Olympic Peninsula is being stretched beyond capacity, Berry said as Mattern, Harris and Jefferson Healthcare CEO Mike Glenn concurred.

“Resources here are not infinite,” Mattern said.

“Our nurses are exhausted,” Harris said.

“This is by far the worst it’s been at Jefferson Healthcare,” said Glenn, adding that often patients are coming in with an acute health condition, then getting tested and find they have COVID-19.

Dean told Berry she had thought the virus’ spread might progress as a “slow burn” this fall.

“It’s not a sustainable burn at all,” Dean said she realizes now.

“Nor is it a slow burn. It’s a wildfire,” Berry said, adding that, when the COVID numbers rise, as they are doing now, it’s impossible to trace all of the people exposed at a location.

“We watched this happen in New York,” she said, and “we thought we’d missed it … We just got hit by a tsunami” in the fifth wave.

Yet if people go and get their shots today, there still will be a period of weeks before they’re fully immune — so it’s critical to avoid having large indoor gatherings, Berry said.

She added that, at crowded outdoor gatherings, masks are a necessity.

Eisenhour, her voice shaking, thanked Berry and the Jefferson Healthcare staffers.

“I appreciate you guys to the end of the world,” she said.

________

Jefferson County senior reporter Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-417-3509 or [email protected]

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