by Sally James
Washington State Department of Health (DOH) Director Umair Shah told reporters on Wednesday, Sept. 29, that hospitalizations from COVID-19 have continued to level off, but he warned that the public should not breathe a sigh of relief just yet.
“The numbers remain high. Too high,” Shah said during a virtual press conference. He compared the full hospitals and tired hospital staff members to a rubber band that is doomed to fail at some point if stretched for too long.
The rate of hospitalizations per 100,000 people in the state was at 579 cases as of the press conference, which is higher than last winter, said Lacy Fehrenbach, deputy director of COVID-19 response for the DOH. While it is a slight decline from earlier in September, she said it is still very high.
To illustrate some of the consequences, Spokane physician Daniel Getz also spoke to reporters about the situation at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center, where he is chief medical officer.
“We’ve had to pause some surgeries. Since Sept. 7, we’ve delayed care for 2,000 people,” Getz said. Delayed surgeries include breast cancer tumor removal and orthopedic remedies, he said.
Shah also talked about mental health concerns for the public and for health-care workers.
“It’s not easy being in health care on a bright blue sunny day,” he said. “But I worry about mental health as the pandemic lingers.”
Getz, Fehrenbach, and Shah all made the point that vaccinations, masking, and avoiding large gatherings are the tools that could ease the hospital burden statewide. Because patients are often transferred from one part of the state to another, problems are not limited to any geographic area but spill over from one area to another. Harborview Medical Center, for example, in Seattle’s First Hill neighborhood, is a regional center serving patients from all of Washington and some other nearby states.
There was some good news shared by DOH spokesperson Michele Roberts. She said that since August, there has been a 25% increase in the number of people beginning to get vaccines. She estimated that 48% of young people ages 12–17 have been vaccinated. There is plenty of variation in that percentage, with some parts of the state nearing 70% of teens and others at 20%, she said.
That number includes children of the health officials. Shah said his 12-year-old had received the vaccine. Roberts said her 13-year-old got vaccinated and she talked about how that knowledge gave her more peace of mind as a parent. Unlike the beginning of the pandemic, Roberts said there is plenty of vaccine available. Some people may also get flu shots this time of year, and both vaccines can be safely received on the same day, according to Roberts.
The situation for parents sending children to school will remain difficult.
Shah explained that outbreaks at individual school buildings are likely to continue because of the high level of COVID-19 disease in the community. The workload for schools, and worry for parents, is not diminishing. Different schools are handling testing of students in different ways. About 75% of schools in the state are using resources from Learn to Return, a program dedicated to helping schools implement regular COVID-19 testing, and many will join in an event Sept. 30 about how to cope with outbreaks.
Fehrenbach pointed out that vaccinated teens can return to school and don’t need to quarantine at home, even if they have had exposure to a person with COVID-19. But that only applies to teens with no symptoms of runny nose, cough, or fever. Those with symptoms have to stay home for quarantine. Understanding all the rules of public and private schools and daycares as the pandemic persists is a tricky task for parents. Readers can find the Seattle Public Schools guidelines online.
Sally James is a science writer in Seattle. You can read more of her work at www.seattlesciencewriter.com. She’s written about biotech, cancer research, and health literacy and volunteered as president of the nonprofit Northwest Science Writers Association.
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