Respiratory illness hits Peninsula hard

Children, elderly especially affected

PORT ANGELES — Three respiratory viruses are wreaking havoc on hospitals, particularly in pediatrics, and the North Olympic Peninsula is not exempt.

Olympic Medical Center and Jefferson Healthcare hospitals often are unable to transfer pediatric cases to children’s hospitals as influenza, Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV), and COVID-19 cases continue to surge across the state, officials said.

Children under 2 are most affected by RSV and the flu while adults over 65 are the most affected by flu and lingering COVID-19 variants.

Over the course of the last month, Clallam County has lost three of its residents to respiratory viruses. Two women, one in her 60s the other in her 80s, both unvaccinated, died from the flu. An infant less than a year old succumbed to RSV.

No deaths were reported in Jefferson County.

“We are getting hit very hard by all three of these viruses at the same time and all three are rising in our community,” said Dr. Allison Berry, health officer for Clallam and Jefferson counties.

“Unfortunately our health care systems are not strong enough to handle all of it,” she said.

”It’s been worn down by two years of responding to COVID-19, so we were short-staffed going into this winter season, so we don’t have the ability to meet the surge the way we used to, to meet demand and I think that’s partly due to the fatigue and all the challenges getting to this point,” Berry added.

Berry said that masking, getting vaccinated when possible, and staying home when sick are the best protection against these respiratory illnesses, but that people often are not doing any of these things anymore.

“By not doing these simple things, we are putting ourselves in a difficult and frankly dangerous situation, where we are seeing unprecedented numbers of particularly young children getting very ill and a shortage of pediatric care to take care of them,” Berry said.

Seattle Children’s Hospital and Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital have both reported being 200-300 percent above capacity, resulting in small hospitals like Olympic Medical Center (OMC) in Port Angeles and Jefferson Healthcare in Port Townsend forming their own pediatric triage units when they cannot transfer children to more intensive pediatric care.

“OMC has worked very hard to build up its pediatric capacity, so its actually admitting kids into the hospital at OMC which is not normal as OMC mostly cares for adults,” Berry said.

“As far as hospitalization, we have seen two to three kids admitted at any given time, but far more are coming into the ER,” Berry said.

Berry said that Jefferson Healthcare also is bolstering its ability to care for children, but will be leaning to some degree on OMC.

During the past week, the two hospitals have been able to transfer pediatric patients who needed more intensive care but are still preparing for a greater influx, Berry said.

“Hospitals across the state are experiencing very high volumes of patients, making it difficult to transfer patients to larger urban hospitals that offer specialized care,” said Bobby Beeman, communications manager for OMC.

“OMC is currently seeing an increase in patients in the ER, the hospital, walk-in clinics, primary and pediatric care too.”

Beeman said that labs at OMC identified at least two strains of each virus circulating in the population. That’s two strains of influenza, two strains of RSV, and two strains of the COVID-19 Omicron variant.

However, available vaccines are proving to be effective across the board, she said.

“The flu vaccine so far is a good match for our circulating strains of influenza, but it’s not 100 percent at preventing symptomatic disease. Some people will get it even if they’re vaccinated, but you are less likely to get it if you get vaccinated,” Berry said.

“For COVID-19, the older rounds of the vaccine are no longer effective enough against Omicron to prevent you from getting it, but if you get your bivalent booster you are much less likely to get the virus and spread it to others as well as less likely to get severe disease,” Berry said.

No vaccine is available against RSV.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Friday that the Bivalent booster is now available for children 6 months and older.

“We are starting to run into shortages of the medications that we need to take care of folks,” Berry said.

Shortages of Tamiflu used to treat the flu in people at high risk for severe disease, and antibiotics for RSV are running low in local pharmacies.

“What we are doing at the health department is sort of surveying what pharmacies have and getting that information to our healthcare providers so they can access that medication where it exists,” Berry said.

“There is a shortage right now,” she said.

As previously mentioned Berry and other regional healthcare providers are encouraging masking in indoor spaces at this time.

On Friday, the Clallam County Department of Health sent out a press release reiterating the recommendation.

“As health officers and health care leaders working to improve the health of Washington residents, we recommend that everyone wear a high-quality, well-fitting mask when around others in indoor spaces to protect against both acquiring and spreading these infections to others,” reads the release signed by health officials from across the state.

Though masking is currently just a recommendation, there are ongoing discussions about returning to mandatory masking.

“It’s possible,” Berry said.

”What makes us consider mandates is when we see critical infrastructure fail. So when we see that people can’t access medical care when they need it when we start losing the ability to take care of critical needs, that’s when we begin to look at mandates,” she continued.

“But this is something we can fix voluntarily without any mandates, Berry said.

”If we wore masks indoors, particularly around kids and around the elderly, that would make all the difference.”

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

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