Local hospitals are strained by staffing shortages and rising COVID-19 hospitalizations as the omicron surge continues in Yakima County.

At Yakima Valley Memorial Hospital, more than 200 employees were out on COVID-19-related absences each day this week, according to chief medical officer Dr. Marty Brueggemann.

The shortage has had a big impact on capacity and staff well-being, he said, while the hospital continues to care for COVID-19 and other patients. Some relief is on the way to Memorial with help coming from the National Guard, Gov. Jay Inslee announced Thursday.

Numbers in Yakima County

About 35 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 in Yakima County Wednesday, 34 at Yakima Valley Memorial and one at Astria Health in Sunnyside. About 38 were hospitalized Thursday, according to data from the Yakima Health District. That is about three times more than in mid-December and about half of the peak of 70 during the delta surge in September.

Community spread is high, as far as case rates from PCR tests show. As of Thursday, the 14-day case rate was 2,082 per 100,000, which is more than 13 times the rate of 155 per 100,000 reported Dec. 23. The health district reported 739 new cases on Thursday.

“(Omicron) has really just blown through this community in a way that we’ve never seen with any of the previous variants,” Brueggemann said.

Though omicron is reported to cause less severe disease than previous variants, some people still get severe illness, and that is seen with the uptick in hospitalizations, Brueggemann said. People who have mild illness will be just fine, he said.

“But the experience for health care workers right now is every bit as bad as delta and the over variants because the sheer volume of cases results in the same problems here in the hospital,” he said. “In fact, it’s worse because now we have these exacerbated staffing shortages.”

Severe staff shortage

Resources are stretched thin at Memorial, Brueggeman said, and conditions are not ideal. He said health care workers are having to take care of more patients than they would normally be comfortable with, and doing it over extended 16-hour shifts, working multiple days in a row without time off.

“I don’t think there’s an unaffected department right now,” he said. “They’re burned out. They’re tired. They’re emotionally spent because they’ve been through this so many times.”

The shortage stretches from doctors and nurses to lab, facility and IT positions, he said. Some people can work remotely if they are up for it, Brueggemann said, but not all have the option.

Memorial spokesperson Bridget Turrell said the hospital is doing what it can to support staff well-being through the surge. She said the hospital has expanded access to counseling services, created a respite room where the staff can relax, and recognizes the efforts of employees.

Astria Health had 10 people out at its hospitals and clinics Thursday, with four new people out this week, spokesperson Jane Winslow said in an email.

Hospital staff members in Sunnyside and Toppenish are picking up additional shifts to ensure there are enough people to care for patients, Winslow said in an email. The shortage of workers is primarily affecting nursing staff, she said.

Care for patients

The number of patients at Memorial exceeded capacity every day this week, Brueuggemann said.

The stretched environment extends into the emergency room, where it can take over an hour to get checked in with 40 people in the waiting room at its busiest times, he said. There are lulls throughout the day, he said, where care is delivered much more quickly.

Winslow said Astria Health assesses bed capacity constantly throughout the day. On Wednesday morning, they had four medical and surgical beds available. No ICU beds were available at that time, she said in an email.

Health officials remind people not to go to the hospital or emergency room unless they need urgent care. People should not go the emergency room to get a COVID-19 test.

“There’s a chance you could delay care for someone who really needs it,” Brueggemann said.

Free community COVID testing is available near the Yakima Valley College campus, at State Fair Park in Yakima and at the Sunnyside Community Center. Hours, location and other information on testing is available at www.YakimaTesting.org.

COVID-19 policies for employees

Memorial and Astria Health are both following guidance from the CDC when a health care worker tests positive, officials said.

Brueggemann said employees can’t come to work at Memorial if they test positive or are showing COVID-19 symptoms.

Memorial is running on contingency standards, Brueggemann said, which is the middle tier for managing health care workers and staffing shortages.

While in contingency standards, any health care practitioner who tests positive for COVID-19, regardless of vaccination status, can return to work after five days if they are asymptomatic or if their symptoms are improving, the CDC guidelines said. There are no work restrictions for health care practitioners who are exposed to COVID-19 and who are fully vaccinated with a booster dose. Health care workers who are not boosted and are exposed can return after five days if they test negative.

Brueggeman said many of the employees who are out are too sick to work, even if they were allowed to return.

Astria Health’s hospitals in Sunnyside and Toppenish are in conventional standards, Winslow said in an email, the first tier for managing staffing.

Under conventional standards, any health care practitioner who tests positive for COVID-19, regardless of vaccination status, can return to work after 10 days, or seven days with a negative test, if they are asymptomatic or if their symptoms are improving, according to CDC guidelines. Health care practitioners who are exposed to COVID-19 and who are fully vaccinated with a booster dose have no work restrictions if they get a negative test after five days. Health care workers who are not boosted and are exposed can return after 10 days or seven days with a negative test.

Contact Kate Smith at katesmith@yakimaherald.com.

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