Hospital and public health officials issued urgent pleas for the public’s help Wednesday as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to increase in Yakima County.

The Yakima Health District reported 214 new COVID cases and 63 hospitalizations Wednesday, totals that echoed January’s surge. Hospital officials said there are long wait times in emergency departments, and capacity is limited with staff out for COVID-19 protocols.

“The vast majority of these patients being treated are unvaccinated and we are seeing younger and younger patients suffering complications and needing acute medical care,” Rhonda Wellner, system director of quality for Astria Health, said in a statement. “With the increase of COVID patients in our systems, we are also seeing an increase of wait times in our emergency departments, an increased need for inpatient beds, and challenges with transferring patients who are needing higher level of care or specialized care.”

Community members can help health care workers and the health care system by getting vaccinated, Wellner said.

“Vaccines are safe and encouraged by our health care community,” she said.

Dr. Marty Brueggemann, chief medical officer at Yakima Valley Memorial, echoed Wellner’s strong support for vaccinations and stressed the importance of masks as he expressed concern for the future.

“We’re scared. I don’t know what else we can say,” he said in a interview Wednesday. “I don’t think people understand how fragile the system is right now.”

Though medical staff “are managing right now ... we don’t have any more capacity to flex,” Brueggemann said. The double strain of staff members staying home because of illness and the number of workers leaving the field is having a huge impact, he said.

Another thing that’s really concerning, he said, is that one out of every four patients at the hospital — which was 49 on Wednesday — has COVID-19. “You’re devoting a quarter of your resources to one disease,” he said.

The 29% positivity rate at the State Fair Park testing site is also worrisome, he said. Though there’s good news in that the death rate isn’t climbing as dramatically, COVID-19 patients may stay in the hospital longer, Brueggemann said.

Preparing for a difficult autumn

Most cases in Washington state are from the more contagious delta variant. Public health officials are concerned with cooler fall weather approaching, which will bring more people inside together.

“We have a dramatic spread currently in our community and this is summertime and people are outside,” Andre Fresco, executive director of the Yakima Health District, said during the board of health meeting Wednesday. “We’re preparing for the fall. We’re prepping our staff for increased workloads.”

Preparations also include a budget increase for the health district, increased federal funding for vaccination efforts plus the anticipated need for even more vaccines once a booster shot is approved. That could happen soon.

The spread of COVID-19 is intense around the country, Fresco said.

“The situation is stark, it’s serious and it’s deadly,” he said, noting the health district’s focus now is on those who are vulnerable and those who are unvaccinated. “We have full emergency rooms. We have hospitals that have all their staff working around the clock. ... It is a very serious circumstance. What I’m trying to convey to you is this is serious.”

Dr. Neil Barg, the Yakima County health officer, said Wednesday the delta strain “is like having a new pandemic.”

“We are asking community members to realize that their actions, while personal in nature, will ultimately have repercussions to our community. The more we let this disease run rampant, the more we are choosing to put our children’s education at risk, our businesses at risk, and our lives from being able to move on,” Barg said in a news release.

A new statewide mask mandate for indoor public spaces went into effect Monday and covers everyone, vaccinated and unvaccinated.

“The beauty of vaccination is the possibility of severe illness, hospitalization and death is far lower,” Fresco said.

Case rates way up

As of Wednesday, Yakima County had 762 cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 over two weeks.

As context, earlier in the year when restrictions were still in place for businesses, the threshold to reopen was 200 cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 over two weeks. The current rate “is more than double and will likely double again in the next few weeks if community members do not take immediate action,” county health officials said.

“Given previous trends in Yakima County, for every 100 people infected with COVID-19, it is likely that five of those individuals may be hospitalized and one of those individuals may die due to COVID-19,” the health district said in its release. “The other 94 individuals may experience mild to moderate symptoms, but those mild to moderate symptoms may still likely cause them to miss work, school, and other activities.”

The county “is poised to see an incredible amount of sickness and preventable death due to COVID-19 and its subsequent impacts on our health care system,” officials said.

Wearing a mask and getting vaccinated will decrease COVID-19 infection and positivity rates. Both are personal choices but can help the community as well, experts said. They stressed the aspect of caring for fellow community members in encouraging both.

“It’s not a personal choice, that’s a choice you’re making for everybody,” Brueggemann said.

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