Daily COVID-19 hospitalizations in Washington state could double if the current rate of virus transmission continues, state health officials said Wednesday.
There is an average of about 60 new hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients per day in the state.
"In a few weeks we'll have 150 people admitted to our hospitals every day," State Health Officer Kathy Lofy said. "If the November 16th restrictions are as successful as they were back in March, we can reverse this trend."
The Spokane Regional Health District confirmed 169 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, and two more deaths from the virus. There are 232 COVID deaths recorded thus far in Spokane County.
There are 117 COVID-19 patients receiving treatment in Spokane hospitals, and 94 of them are Spokane County residents.
A person infected with the virus typically will not need to be hospitalized at the outset of their illness but instead could need hospitalization a week or longer into their fight with the virus. This has state health officials raising the alarm as intensive care units around the state begin to fill.
The Panhandle Health District confirmed 201 new cases on Wednesday, as well as four more deaths due to COVID-19. There are 58 residents from the five-county region of North Idaho hospitalized with the virus, including 46 COVID patients at Kootenai Health.
Health officials use a metric called the effective reproductive number which calculates how many other people become infected by a single person with the coronavirus to track virus transmission. Right now in Eastern Washington, every sick person is infecting 1.7 others. To flatten the curve, that number must be driven to below 1.
Lofy said her biggest concern is capacity in intensive care units around the state.
The state's largest hospital, Swedish First Hill in Seattle, has paused some inpatient elective surgeries to ensure they can treat patients with urgent conditions as well as make room for COVID-19 patients.
"What we're hearing from hospitals is that finding staff that can work in the ICU is one of the limiting factors," Lofy said. "We're also seeing the number of patients in our ICUs increasing rapidly, so I'm very concerned that the first pinch point we'll see in the system is around the ability to provide ICU care."
Dr. Elizabeth Wako, chief operating officer at Swedish First Hill, told reporters that some health care workers acquiring the virus out in the community and infecting their coworkers has led to further staffing challenges at the hospital.
Washington is experiencing the fastest growth of COVID-19 since March, and intensive care units around the state are starting to get crowded.
State health officials reiterated the importance of not gathering over the Thanksgiving holiday.
"This is probably the most important time we've had so far in this nine or 10 months of this pandemic," Secretary of Health Dr. John Wiesman told reporters Wednesday.
COVID-19 activity is increasing all over the state, including in the Inland Northwest. Washington state has set multiple new daily records for case counts in the last few weeks. The number of hospitalized patients in the Inland Northwest also continues to grow.
State health officials said that changes made today, like not hosting gatherings or dining indoors at restaurants, will likely not impact the state data for at least two or three weeks, making it too early to determine how risky gatherings for holidays in December could be.
"We do not want to see a (Thanksgiving) spike in addition to what we're already seeing, otherwise, for sure, our holidays in December will be ones that have to be much like Thanksgiving," Wiesman said.
Locally, in the last month, confirmed cases in Spokane County residents over the age of 80 have lowered compared to earlier this summer.
Interim Health Officer Dr. Francisco Velázquez said this is, in part, due to fewer residents at long-term care facilities testing positive for the virus in recent weeks.
"It's important because this is one of our most vulnerable groups," Velázquez said on Wednesday.
There are outbreaks at 30 facilities countywide, but an outbreak for long-term care facilities means just one positive case, and epidemiologist Cassie Prather said there are no explosive outbreaks currently.
When a facility confirms a case in a staff member or resident, they are put in outbreak status, which starts a 28-day prohibition on visitors, except for compassionate care visits. Facilities are doing regular surveillance testing, Prather said.
Prather said she thinks there are fewer cases in older county residents due to the limiting of visitors at long-term care facilities, noting that it's primarily staff members testing positive since they are out in the community and bringing the virus into the facilities.