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Fourth wave is ‘totally stoppable’ says state hospital association president

Personnel eat in the cafeteria at Harborview Medical Center on Nov. 26, 2020 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images)

Washington has seen an increase in hospitalizations for COVID-19 across the state, though there could be hope on the horizon that a fourth wave that’s already started can still be turned around.

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“We have definitely seen an increase in hospitalizations across the state, which is very worrisome,” said Cassie Sauer, president and CEO of the Washington State Hospital Association. “We had actually bee having hospitalizations decline pretty significantly, and were down to about 350 people hospitalized. And that was pretty steady for about five or six weeks throughout the end of February and March and early April. And then suddenly we start to see a pretty fast increase in the number of folks hospitalized, up to more than 600 people hospitalized at a time, so that’s been a really big concern for us.”

“It seems like it may be plateauing right now,” she noted. “The cases are plateauing, and so we’re hopeful that that maybe we might be in a place of turning the corner, which would be great.”

A few hospitals in the state have reached a point where they needed to transfer patients out, Sauer said, including in Ferry County where there has been an outbreak but hospitals are small.

“But in general, hospitals are managing this really well,” she said. “We have an incredibly cooperative group of hospitals with each other. There’s a shared agreement, actually a written agreement among all the hospitals that they will help each other, make sure that no hospital gets overwhelmed.”

In other places, like New York, Arizona, Texas, and California, individual hospitals got overwhelmed with patients, but thanks to the unusual partnership in Washington, Sauer says that’s not the case here.

“We have transferred staff, knowledge, medications, equipment, ventilators, patients, personal protective equipment all around the state,” she said. “Even this week, we facilitated some personal protective equipment transfers up to those hospitals in Ferry County. Since they’ve had this outbreak, they needed more. We had other hospitals very willing to give it to them to make sure that they could take care of the folks who needed it.”

Explaining the increase

As to what’s driven the increase in cases in recent weeks, Sauer thinks it’s a combination of more contagious variants of COVID-19 and of general fatigue with the pandemic.

“I think it’s definitely the variants, they are more contagious. They seem to have what’s called a higher attack rate, which means they, from the virus’ perspective, they’re more successful at making people sick. So definitely something to be worried about,” she said. “But the other piece I think is people are tired — I hear people say like, ‘I’m kind of done with this pandemic.’ And I think, ‘the pandemic’s not done with you, it’s not done with us.'”

She also thinks a sense of complacency about things getting better contributed to it, like in Ferry County, where people thought it would be OK if they went to a party since cases were declining.

“I think there’s, there’s kind of a, ‘eh, it’ll be all right’ feeling, which I don’t think is true,” Sauer said.

“I really liked what the governor had to say in his press conference when he said we’re pausing the phases but we want to accelerate vaccination,” she added. “…  The state has more supply of vaccines than it has demand.”

Sauer says that they’re now finding that aside from those who don’t want to get vaccinated or aren’t able to for medical reasons, some people say they would if it was available to them or more convenient.

“We’re really trying to reach those folks who are in the ‘I’ve heard it’s hard, I’m going to wait till it’s not hard anymore, I want it to be really easy for me and I’ll get to it when I get to it’ to say like now is the time to get to it,” Sauer said. “It’s easy to find a vaccine appointment. Go get one, get started. Protect yourself, you can enjoy your summer, you can do so much more when you’re vaccinated.”

In terms of the plateau, Sauer does think it’s in part due to more people getting vaccinated.

“But I think it’s also people — we were able to say for many weeks cases are declining, things are getting better, things are opening up, … you can go to restaurants and do a lot more things, and I think people felt like, ‘oh, phew, it’s over,’ and I think with the fourth wave that’s come and not just here, but in other states, people have have ratcheted back on their behaviors, which we appreciate,” she said.

“That’s the thing about the fourth wave, which we keep saying to people is like, it is totally stoppable. It is not inevitable. This is not our destiny,” Sauer added. “We can turn it around in a week or two at the most if people will get vaccinated, wear their masks, keep their distance. We can knock this thing down.”

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As to who is now being hospitalized, Sauer confirmed that they are seeing a lot of younger patients.

“Definitely younger people, including people in their 20s and 30s and even kids,” she said. “I think that’s really important for people to realize is I hear people thinking that their age will protect them from COVID, that people in their age range haven’t gotten really sick and that’s largely true, but it’s not entirely true. So there have been plenty of people who have gotten really sick, or who have long-haul symptoms of COVID, or who even have died from COVID in those age groups, so it’s not worth the risk.”

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