The COVID case and hospitalization rates in Yakima are down significantly from the late summer surge, according to local health officials. But Yakima Valley Memorial Hospital remains nearly full and staff are spread thin.

The county saw its most recent peak in its COVID case rate the week of Sept. 7, according to data from the Yakima County Health District. But the rate has dropped steadily since then and the current rate is less than a third of what it was in late summer. Local transmission is still considered high by county health officials.

The health district also reported its lowest number of people hospitalized with COVID since early August 2021, with 24 hospitalized countywide Tuesday. That’s down from a peak of 70 on Sept. 9.

Hospitals full

The number of patients at Memorial hospital remains high.

“It’s been several days in the last month or so when we’ve actually had more patients than our licensed bed capacity,” said Dr. Marty Brueggemann, the hospital’s chief medical officer. “So, despite the drop in COVID numbers we do remain very busy.”

The hospital is licensed for 226 beds but can fit 256 beds in its space. Brueggemann said overflow patients are put in holding areas normally reserved for other uses, like psychiatric patients or post-anesthesia care.

The hospital had 203 patients Thursday, which Brueggemann said was its lowest total in a while. Still, that number would be unusually high in non-pandemic times.

“We’re all considering that great, which is crazy,” he said.

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Brueggemann said many of these patients are likely part of a backlog of medical needs that accumulated during the recent surge.

While hospital staff have continued to perform emergency surgeries throughout the pandemic, non-emergent surgeries were suspended during the surge.

Now, non-emergent surgeries are considered on a case-by-case basis. A council of physicians considers which procedures are more urgent and what resources the hospital has available to determine which ones to prioritize and which ones to delay, Brueggemann said.

Staffing boost

The hospital welcomed 35 nurses and five nursing assistants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency earlier this month. They will remain at Memorial through March 2022.

The nurses have been instrumental in filling staffing holes and maintaining operations, Brueggemann said. Those nurses are all working with COVID patients.

“It was almost a party when the first crew showed up a couple of weeks ago,” he said.

The hospital applied for support months ago and was recently chosen by the governor’s office due to the area being a COVID hotspot, Brueggemann said. The state is covering the cost of the nurses’ salaries.

Memorial continues to see significant numbers of staff members out due to COVID exposure or contraction. About 45 staff members have been out in recent days for COVID reasons, Brueggemann said.

Twenty-six staff members left due to the vaccine mandate, Brueggemann said. Memorial has about 3,000 employees.

The hospital has more than 100 open nursing positions at the moment, Brueggemann said.

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“Staffing is very tight, not just here in Yakima, not just in the state of Washington, but really across the entire country, and with the high (patient numbers), that does create some operational challenges,” he said.

Holiday safety

Brueggemann asked that people take reasonable precautions during the holiday season, especially when gathering indoors.

He recommended that people mask up at gatherings with unvaccinated people in attendance. He also suggested keeping at-home, rapid COVID tests on hand. The tests are available at local pharmacies and can be ordered online.

“If you know that you and your family are vaccinated, I see no reason why you shouldn’t be able to gather and enjoy your meal together,” he said.

Yakima Health District officials have urged the community to stay vigilant with COVID safety during the holiday season.

Brueggemann asked all eligible community members to get vaccinated so COVID rates can continue to drop. He said that having fewer COVID patients in the hospital frees up more resources for other services.

Regarding the recently authorized Pfizer vaccine for kids ages 5 to 11 years old, Brueggemann said that while young people made up a small number of people hospitalized with COVID, even during the surge. However, young COVID positive people can spread the virus to older people, who are more likely to require serious care.

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