by Sally James
The Washington State Hospital Association (WSHA) warned the public on Jan. 6 that rising cases of COVID-19, as well as staff shortages due to illness, are challenging the ability to provide care.
The group held a media event via livestream on Jan. 6. Later the same day, the Washington State Department of Health (DOH) held a separate press event and explained how millions of home-testing kits for COVID-19 will be distributed beginning late next week.
To add to the alarm bells, the Washington State Medical Association, representing about 12,000 physicians, wrote a letter to Gov. Jay Inslee and State health officials, also on Jan. 6, asking them to declare an emergency statewide and free up additional funds.
“We are effectively operating crisis capacity strategies throughout our health care system. Our emergency departments are overrun, our hospitals are full. We are emotionally and physically exhausted,” the letter stated and outlined some measures to make transferring patients easier. The letter also recommended mobilizing National Guard members to assist.
Gov. Jay Inslee’s office announced on Jan. 5 that in addition to at-home testing kits, the State has purchased disposable KN95 masks and will be distributing both throughout the state via community groups and via an online system.
WSHA said about 1,187 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 on Jan. 5, an increase of 88% over a month ago. The rate of increase is alarming. Much of the problem for hospitals is staff being sick themselves or home in isolation because of a family member having COVID-19. Most of the cases are believed to be due to the new omicron variant of the virus, but some are still from the delta variant.
Like a highway with both ice and landslides and too few snowplows, the system for discharging patients is also sluggish right now. At the State health briefing, an expert explained that sending a hospital patient home or to a nursing home requires a lengthy series of administrative steps. Right now, administrative staff shortages are slowing down hospitals’ ability to discharge patients and make room for new ones.
“Things will look kind of bleak for a while,” said Dr. Umair Shah, secretary of health for the DOH. “Things will likely get worse before we see the community optimism of getting better.”
Here are some answers to common questions:
Where can I get tested if I think I might have COVID-19?
This is a tricky question. If you have symptoms already, like a sore throat or fever, you should assume you may have COVID-19 and make sure you don’t expose other people in your home or your community until you know for sure. Pharmacies are experiencing shortages of rapid at-home tests, and the lines are long at some of the public testing sites around King County, but officials say they expect that to ease a little. Visit Public Health — Seattle & King County’s website to find testing locations throughout the county.
Asymptomatic folks concerned about exposure or infection may run into obstacles given the current staff and supply shortages. Some testing sites run by the University of Washington ask you not to visit their sites so they can prioritize people with symptoms. Health care providers may be able to help with testing as well, but the DOH asks that people not visit emergency rooms to request testing.
When will free at-home tests be available from the State?
One expert told the media that they hoped to have these tests (5.5 million) on their way to schools and community groups by the end of next week. Some of the tests will also be available to the public through an online site that will be available soon. The purpose of giving the tests to community groups and tribes, for example, is to ensure access for people without internet access or fluency in English.
When should I get a booster for myself or my children? And where?
The rules for when to get a booster depend on which vaccine the person originally received. A booster is recommended after five months for Pfizer and Moderna and after two months for Johnson & Johnson.
New guidelines were approved Jan. 6 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that allow boosters for children ages 12–17. Most vaccination providers may offer boosters for all ages, but some are specialized to serve adults or children only.
The DOH offers a Vaccine Locator site and a helpline for questions about COVID-19. The number is 1-833-VAX-HELP. The City of Seattle also lists upcoming vaccination clinics as does the Seattle Public Schools website.
Why is omicron causing such a crisis?
The omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus passes more easily from an infected person to others. While the delta variant initially causes more severe illness, omicron can be passed much more easily in the air (and long-term effects of all variants can be serious). Using masks — high-quality masks — is recommended, which is why the governor’s office has purchased KN95 masks, which are considered much better than cloth or surgical masks. If you don’t have the higher-quality masks, DOH recommends that you double up and use a surgical mask inside your cloth mask.
For more helpful information about masking, visit the DOH masking information page.
Editors’ Note: A previous version of this article had the incorrect phone number for the DOH COVID-19 vaccine appointment helpline. This article was updated on 1/8/2022 with the correct number.
Sally James is a science writer in Seattle. You can read more of her work at 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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