Five respiratory illness deaths reported on North Peninsula

Flu cases difficult to transfer to other hospitals

PORT ANGELES — A key issue in the deaths of three Clallam County residents from influenza over the past week was the inability to transfer them to a higher level of care in Seattle hospitals, the county health officer said.

The three — a man in his 90s and a man and a woman in their 70s — were among five deaths in the same time period from respiratory viruses circulating on the North Olympic Peninsula. Two of the five deaths were from COVID-19, both in Clallam County.

“We are having trouble finding ICU beds for very sick adults, which looks like it played into some of these recent flu deaths,” said Dr. Allison Berry, health officer for Clallam and Jefferson counties, on Tuesday.

“We can see in their charts that there were attempts to transfer them to Seattle hospitals, but there were no beds available,” she said.

“I think the hospitals did their best to take care of them out here,” she added. “But there is just not enough of the really high-level care that we are used to being able to transfer folks for.”

Transferring pediatric cases has become easier, Berry said, “which is great, but unfortunately, we are starting to see the inability to transfer adults.”

Influenza had claimed the lives of 93 people in the state as of Tuesday this flu season, Berry said. Seven of those were Clallam County residents.

The man and woman in their 70s who died of flu during the past week were both vaccinated while the man in his 90s was not, Berry said. All had significant underlying health issues, she said.

Seattle-area hospitals had reported being above capacity last month.

Olympic Medical Center (OMC) in Port Angeles and Jefferson Healthcare hospital in Port Townsend try to transfer people to any hospital that has an open bed.

“There is a standard transfer direction, but there is also this thing called the Northwest Healthcare Response Network,” Berry said.

“Basically we put in a call to this kind of central location and they will find any bed in the state that we can get someone to,” she said.

“We might even send someone to Spokane if they happen to have a bed available,” Berry added.

Berry noted that normally medical practitioners will look for space at a Kitsap County hospital, followed by checking across Puget Sound.

“If we reach a point where we can’t get someone out of our local hospital, it is because there is no place for them to go,” Berry said.

In those cases, hospitals like OMC and Jefferson Healthcare do the best they can to care for patients and seek advice from larger institutions.

“We tend to do a lot of phone consultation in those settings where we talk to specialists and get their advice, but ultimately there are some things that we just don’t have here,” Berry said.

COVID

The two COVID deaths were women in their 80s and 90s who were both unvaccinated, Berry said.

No new COVID-19 deaths were reported in Jefferson County, which has lost 34 of its residents, while Clallam has lost 131 of its residents to the virus since the pandemic began.

The current COVID case rate for Clallam County is 183 cases per 100,000 population for a total of 15,469 cases since the pandemic began. In Jefferson County, it is 248 cases per 100,000 for a total of 4,657 cases since the pandemic began.

Case rates are less meaningful now that COVID is endemic than they were during the pandemic. At-home testing means fewer cases are reported to public health authorities.

Case rates are a reflection of cases reported during a two-week period. They are computed using a formula based on 100,000 population even for counties that do not have 100,000 people living in them.

No deaths from any of the three circulating respiratory illnesses — COVID-19, influenza or RSV — were reported in Jefferson County, and no deaths from RSV were reported in Clallam County.

Berry said the Peninsula will likely see a rise in flu and RSV cases due to holiday gatherings.

“Though cases are trending down, we are still seeing high rates of transmission of all of these viruses and expect to see a bump in the coming weeks due to the holidays,” Berry said.

Masks, vaccines

Berry and other health officials continue to urge masking when indoors throughout the winter and getting vaccinated against the flu and COVID.

“The vaccines for COVID and the flu are proving to be very effective,” Berry said.

In terms of COVID, the main sub-variants of omicron that are circulating are the BQ and BQ1.1, which have proven to be more transmissible and immune evasive, particularly for those whose only protection is prior infection.

“It can get around the vaccine, but the vaccine provides a level of protection that lessens the severity of the virus,” Berry said.

There is no vaccine or treatment available for RSV, which is often treated the same as the flu in terms of hydration and prescribing antiviral drugs.

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Reporter Ken Park can be reached at kpark@peninsuladailynews.com.

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