The COVID-19 situation at Yakima Valley Memorial Hospital has improved in recent weeks as COVID figures trend down across the county. But health officials cautioned that the pandemic is still in full swing and urged the community to follow safety protocols.

“There are some promising trends that I’ll talk about, but I do want to emphasize the pandemic is far from over,” said Dr. Marty Brueggemann, Memorial’s chief medical officer.

The hospital remains near capacity, but in recent days only about 30 to 40 patients have been COVID-positive, Brueggemann said at a news conference Thursday. During the late summer surge, it was typical for the hospital to have about 50 COVID-positive patients.

Brueggemann also said the majority of hospitalized COVID patients were unvaccinated.

The COVID-19 transmission rate remains high in Yakima County, with 245 new cases reported Thursday, according to the Yakima Health District.

The hospital also continues to face staffing shortages, with 56 people out for COVID-related reasons Thursday, Brueggemann said. More than 90 staff members have been redeployed from ambulatory services to help with patient care.

“That’s really about the only thing that’s managed to keep us above water,” Brueggemann said.

At Astria Health hospitals in Sunnyside and Toppenish, the number of patients is down compared to the late summer surge.

At the Hospital in Sunnyside, five out of the 23 total acute care patients were COVID positive Thursday, according to hospital spokes person Mike Paoli. In the Toppenish hospital, two out of the seven acute care patients were COVID positive.

All of those COVID patients were unvaccinated, and none were on ventilators, Paoli said in an email.

Antibody therapy

As the demand for COVID treatments continue, Memorial Hospital will more widely offer monoclonal antibody therapy to qualifying COVID-positive patients.

With a doctor’s referral, patients can receive monoclonal antibody therapy at Memorial’s COVID Assessment & Treatment Clinic, which is on Creekside Loop.

In order to qualify, patients must meet a number of criteria, including being older than 12 years, having been recently diagnosed with COVID-19 and having only mild or moderate symptoms. Patients must also be unvaccinated or partially vaccinated. Vaccinated patients can qualify if they are over the age of 70 or immunosuppressed, according to a Memorial news release.

The hospital has a limited number of doses, though Brueggemann said he would like to see those doses be used soon so Memorial can qualify for more.

Memorial’s staff members have used monoclonal antibody therapy on patients in the emergency room, Brueggemann said. However, the precision of the treatments, as well as ease of administration has improved in recent months, which made wider availability possible.

At the Astria Toppenish Hospital, staff are also available to offer a limited number of monoclonal antibody therapy infusions, Paoli said in an email. The treatment is not available at the hospital in Sunnyside.

Brueggemann said that while the treatment can help moderately reduce hospitalizations, vaccinations are far more effective.

“I want to emphasize that this is just a tool that we can use to fight an infection once you get it,” he said. “By far the best tactic is to get vaccinated.”

The treatments come at no cost to Memorial, Brueggemann said. That is typical of more experimental treatments. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued an emergency use authorization for monoclonal antibody therapy to treat COVID-19 in May.

The federal government bought doses of the treatment and provided them to states, which further distributed them locally. They are in high demand nationwide, particularly in states with low vaccination rates, the Associated Press reports.

Some local officials worry what will happen should the free doses of the treatment run out. At Wednesday’s meeting of the Yakima County Health District, the board agreed to put together a letter to advocate for the federal government to continue to subsidize the cost of the treatment.

In mid-September the Biden administration committed to buying over a million additional doses of monoclonal antibody therapy to distribute, CNN reports.

Staying vigilant

While COVID patient intake at Memorial is down, Brueggemann cautioned that the pandemic remains a threat.

Brueggemann thanked community members for continuing to wear masks in public.

He also thanked workers at the Central Washington State Fair and school staff for the precautions they have taken and safety protocols in place but said either of these gathering places could lead to a spike in cases.

“Either one of these could produce another surge that could put us right back where we were a couple of weeks ago,” he said. “So, we certainly aren’t out of the woods yet.”

Brueggemann said that the hospital was already busy before the latest COVID surge. He also said the stressed staffing levels, combined with high patient volume have led to a strain on the hospital.

“We do remain fragile in terms of our ability to absorb another surge,” he said.

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