Astria Health has given the state options to lease or purchase its recently closed hospital in Yakima to handle any surge of patients the area may encounter amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

Those options were included in a March 20 letter to state Secretary of Health John Wiesman.

Astria Health CEO John Gallagher said in the letter that the hospital was still equipped with 80 beds and the facility could be organized to house up to 118 people in private quarters.

“In this unprecedented era of planning for surge capacity to deal with the expected patients from the novel coronavirus pandemic COVID-19, the recently closed Astria Regional Medical Center in Yakima is a facility that could be procured or leased quickly by the state in order to help handle the impending surge of patients,” Gallagher wrote.

There were 53 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Yakima County as of Wednesday night.

Gallagher could not immediately be reached for comment.

Cory Portner, COVID-19 spokesman for the state, said Gallagher’s proposal is one of several possibilities being considered.

Hurdles

Astria Health filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in May and abruptly closed Astria Regional in January. As the new coronavirus began spreading in Washington, people throughout the community began asking if Regional could be reopened to help care for a possible swell of COVID-19 patients.

Regional’s closing left Yakima with one hospital — Virginia Mason Memorial, with 226 beds.

At a Saturday news conference, Virginia Mason administrators and medical staff said COVID-19 cases would overwhelm the hospital by April 8 unless people in the the community began staying at home.

“On April 8, we physicians will be forced to decide which of our neighbors, our friends or family members, will get a chance to live, and which will die,” said Dr. Marty Brueggemann, the hospital’s chief medical officer.

In his letter, Gallagher pointed to a Los Angeles hospital – St. Vincent Medical Center – also in bankruptcy that was quickly reopened by the state of California in response to the pandemic.

“Our bankruptcy attorney can explain how this can be done quickly within the Astria Health bankruptcy case,” he said in the letter.

Gallagher said Astria’s hospitals in Toppenish and Sunnyside are preparing for a surge in patients.

Options

The federal government has provided the county with equipment for a mobile hospital, including 250 beds. There’s been discussion among county officials about setting up a mobile hospital at various locations, including the Yakima SunDome and the former Marine Corps Armory on South 16th Avenue.

State Rep. Jeremie Dufault said a second hospital needs to be established now, before the county reaches a crisis.

“I think it’s prudent that we would open up something now,” he said. “If we’re wrong then we can just close it down. But if were not, then we’re saving lives.”

Dufault initially wasn’t in favor of relying on Astria for support during the pandemic, but learning that Regional still had 80 beds and the state could quickly navigate issues surrounding its bankruptcy changed his outlook.

“I think that opening this hospital is more viable than I thought,” he said Wednesday.

Former State Rep. Norm Johnson said the only way he’d support the use of Astria is if another entity stepped in to operate it, which the letter proposes.

Johnson served 27 years as board member for the former Providence Yakima Medical Center, which became Astria Regional in 2017. He was also a member of the Health Care & Wellness Committee.

“I personally would have more faith if the state opened it on a temporary basis or if the state would allow Virginia Mason (Memorial Hospital) to operate it,” Johnson said Wednesday.

Staffing

Getting another hospital going — whether it’s Astria Regional or a mobile unit — will require additional staff, a resource the area is running short of, state officials said.

State Rep. Chris Corry said he’s been working on policies allowing area school districts to provide day care services to hospital staff and other emergency responders during the outbreak.

He said Virginia Mason Memorial has reported an increasing number of staff missing work because of a need to stay home with children in the wake of Gov. Jay Inslee’s no-school order.

“This is still ongoing — it hasn’t been resolved yet,” Corry said. “Some districts across the state say they are on board, some say no, others want more clarification from OSPI” — the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Selah began providing child care services Tuesday, followed Monday by the Yakima and Grandview districts.

Emergency management officials have said they may request help from the National Guard for additional medical staff to staff temporary hospitals, if additional hospitals are required.

Editor's note: A change was made to this story to correct the date child-care for front-line medical staff and first responders will be available in Yakima and Grandview.

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