St. Michael ER in Bremerton still closed, no reopening date in sight
Five days after it first shut its doors due to a staffing shortage, the emergency department at St. Michael Medical Center in Bremerton remains closed.
Virginia Mason Franciscan Health told KIRO Radio in a statement that there was no estimated date to reopen the ER, which closed last Friday evening.
In the meantime, patients are asked to go to the ER of St. Michael in Silverdale, about 7 miles away. An ambulance is stationed at the Bremerton location to convey anyone who goes there by mistake to Silverdale at no cost.
Cassie Sauer, CEO of the Washington State Hospital Association, said that this way, patients and staff can be under one roof of a nearby facility that is bigger and can accommodate more people.
“I think what they’re hoping to do is consolidate staff in a place where they can take more people, and they can share the work across a larger group of staff,” Sauer said.
Sauer said the problem is by no means being felt only in Bremerton; across the state of Washington and the entire country, hospitals are being overwhelmed by a large influx of patients at the same time that there is an exodus of health care workers. People are also having trouble getting spots in long-term care facilities to recover after hospitalization.
In Thurston County, ambulances bringing patients to emergency rooms have had to wait up to 90 minutes in the parking lot because there are many patients and too-few workers.
“Hospitals are full, quite full, right now. … But staffing is a limiting factor,” Sauer said. “It’s not space. We don’t really need to open more wards — most hospitals have some beds that they can use, but they don’t have the staff for them.”
Throughout the summer, people have been seeking hospital care in droves as an indirect result of the pandemic. Those who put off routine screenings during the past year are now discovering problems that may have been mitigated or prevented entirely if caught earlier. Additionally, with the warm weather and the desire to get outside after being quarantined, people are having hiking, swimming, and other sports accidents. The hot weather itself has also contributed to increases in strokes and other heat-related illnesses.
Now, with the delta variant causing a fifth wave, COVID hospitalizations are increasing and adding to the burden.
Simultaneously, doctors, nurses, and other medical staff are taking leave or saying goodbye to the profession altogether. For some, Sauer says, it has to do with staying home so they will not expose an unvaccinated child or other vulnerable family member to coronavirus. Others are taking time off to care for relatives falling into that category of patients who decided to forego routine care and are now in need of help.
But for many, it is severe burnout after what was the most stressful period of their careers.
“This has been exhausting work to care for COVID patients over the last year and a half, and it’s been really demoralizing to be seeing COVID patients coming in right now. … We are treating an unvaccinated population in the ICU,” Sauer said.
Nearly every patient being hospitalized for COVID-19 is unvaccinated, and Sauer said that for medical professionals, it is heartbreaking to see people sick and dying alone, without family around them, when it all would likely have been preventable.
“I think that’s really contributing to the burnout,” she said. “It’s like, ‘Why am I doing this? Why am I doing this incredibly hard physical and emotional labor, when people didn’t make the choice that is a clear choice to keep themselves healthy?'”
When asked how the public can help the hardworking doctors and nurses, Sauer had one simple request: Get vaccinated.
“I think the biggest support that people could give to them right now is to not get COVID,” she said. “I mean, that’s what’s really burning people out right now. … Get vaccinated. It works. It’s safe.”
Virginia Mason Franciscan Health declined requests for an interview about the St. Michael closure.