Washington hospitals near capacity with Idaho COVID transfers

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Photo by Elaine Thompson / AP
Photo by Elaine Thompson / AP

As of September 20, 2021, 71% of King County residents are fully vaccinated. Washington state, as a whole, has been strict about COVID-19, mandating masks for indoor gatherings and all public schools as the Delta variant rages across the country.

While higher vaccination rates have meant a drop in cases in Western Washington, the pandemic continues to pound the eastern half of the state. Hospitals have begun to overflow, and many communities are feeling the devastating effects.

Hospitals in Spokane are at capacity, even though Spokane County has some of the highest vaccination rates in eastern Washington, with 53% of residents fully vaccinated.

Its proximity to Idaho is one of the main culprits. With northern Idaho just a 15-minute drive from Spokane, many Washingtonians had been crossing the state border to escape strict COVID guidelines and socialize mask-free. Now, it's Idahoans turn to cross the border, as hospitals in the state have begun outsourcing patients to already overcrowded hospitals in eastern Washington, exhausting what little supplies and treatments they already had.

Hospital floors previously used for other patients are now being turned into makeshift COVID wards at Sacred Heart Hospital after the original floor filled up.

Despite the county averaging above a 50% vaccination rate, many vaccinated patients have contracted the virus as a result of rampant exposure throughout the community.

The effects of this new surge are devastating. Hospitals are reserving the limited treatments and life-saving resources they have for the direst of situations. For many, this treatment comes too late.

Politicization and delayed treatments
The pandemic has been heavily politicized, and nowhere is this more evident than in Eastern Washington and Northern Idaho. Eastern Washington politicians like Sen. Cathy McMorris Rodger and Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward have voiced their dissents with state and federal mandates but have reluctantly obliged.

Idaho, on the other hand, has fought tooth and nail against mandates. It refuses to enforce mask-wearing, lockdowns, or social distancing and is now going so far as to challenge President Biden's "Path Out of the Pandemic" action plan. On Tuesday, September 14, Idaho Gov. Brad Little announced that his state is now "committed to taking legal action to stop President Biden's unprecedented government overreach into the private sector with his new COVID-19 plan."

The announcement came as more Idaho patients fill beds in Spokane hospitals. Now, Washington doctors are having to push aside locals facing other ailments. Providence Sacred Heart, another hospital in Spokane, has begun delaying procedures, such as brain tumor extraction and surgery for orthopedic patients, to provide care to the many COVID-19 patients coming in each day. "We are delaying care for people who are in misery," Sacred Heart doctor Daniel Getz told the New York Times. "It's agonizing for those patients. This has real impacts on these people who are waiting."

Crisis in Idaho may spark one in Washington
Idaho has now entered a crisis standard of care, which means there are no longer enough resources to care for everyone with serious medical needs. Washington hospitals have started being more selective in the Idaho transfer patients they accept, going from an acceptance rate of 90% to just over 50% to prevent hospitals in eastern Washington from descending into the crisis standard.

Washington hospitals cannot refuse service to patients from Idaho, however. Federal law forces all hospitals to accept transfers until they reach maximum capacity. COVID patients from Idaho will continue to fill up Spokane's hospitals for the foreseeable future until, ultimately, eastern Washington succumbs to the same fate as Idaho.

With the arrival of the Delta variant and the possible Mu strain, Eastern Washington is on the verge of a crisis. How Idahoans handle the virus will mean life or death for many residents of Spokane. Nurses like Thompson are becoming increasingly worried for the future of the region.