COVID-19 Vaccine May Come Available Soon, But Not Before Hospitals Will Have to Start Implementing Surge Plans

by Carolyn Bick

Aside from starting to cancel non-emergent surgeries and other procedures, there doesn’t appear to be much else healthcare professionals can do to make way for what many see as an inevitable surge in COVID-19 cases and associated hospitalizations, following Thanksgiving and the December holidays.

In a press conference on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving, Washington State Department of Health (DOH) Health Officer Dr. Kathy Lofy essentially repeated what she and other healthcare professionals had talked about in a press conference hosted by Gov. Jay Inslee’s office the day before: hospitals have been preparing for several months to meet an expected surge, and this preparation includes once again beginning to deny certain forms of healthcare, just as they did at the start of the pandemic.

One of the first things hospitals can do — and what some are already starting to do, she said — is cut back on non-urgent surgeries, in an effort to free up staff and bed space. There are also plans in place to utilize other spaces within hospitals that would normally be used in a different way, including transforming surgical recovery rooms into COVID-19 patient rooms. Lofy also said that hospitals are training staff, in order for them to be able to take care of COVID-19 patients.

But this doesn’t necessarily mean that hospitals will be able to meet the surge with ease. Already, hospitals across the state are facing large numbers of patients, and Lofy said that this concerns her more than if it were just one or two regions in the state facing this kind of surge.

“If one single region gets overwhelmed, we have less options to move those patients into other regions,” Lofy said.

Within the first two weeks of November, case counts have more than doubled across the state, and hospitalizations are rapidly rising everywhere. Lofy shared the number of hospital beds occupied by people with confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19, as well as the number of intensive care unit beds occupied statewide. The latter data shows a sharp increase since October, and the Emerald has included a screenshot of the data Lofy shared below.

ICU bed use as of Nov. 23, 2020. View source here. (Note: To find this screen, you will need to navigate within the dashboard to the tab and menu item shown.)

In King County, the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 stands at 256, which is almost equal to the number of people hospitalized with the disease at the outset of the pandemic in the spring. The Emerald has included a screenshot of the information Lofy shared below.

COVID activity increasing throughout the state. This information can be found here (some navigation required to locate specific data).

DOH Acting Assistant Secretary Michele Roberts shared relatively positive news: health officials still believe that a vaccine should be available for some high-risk, frontline workers by mid-December, if vaccine manufacturer Pfizer’s Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) application to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is approved. Based on estimates from the federal government, Roberts said an initial 62,400 doses of the Pfizer vaccine are expected to become available for those workers, with an additional 200,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine to become available by the end of December.

Roberts said that health officials expect regular shipments of the vaccine to start being shipped to Washington State at the beginning of January, but the Emerald would like to remind readers that, as officials mentioned in yesterday’s press conference, this does not mean the vaccine will be available for everyone all at once, and it is much more likely that most Washingtonians won’t be able to get vaccinated until well into 2021.

Carolyn Bick is a journalist and photographer based in South Seattle. You may reach them on Twitter and check out their other work here and here.

Featured image is a screenshot of Dr. Kathy Lofy’s screen, during the Nov. 25, 2020, Department of Health press conference. It shows COVID-19 activity in different regions throughout the state. The text at the top reads, “COVID-19 activity is widespread.”