As COVID-19 hospitalizations continue to increase in Yakima County, its three hospitals have increased the number of available beds, with more options available.

But beds aren’t the problem, said Dr. Marty Brueggemann, chief medical officer at Virginia Mason Memorial hospital in Yakima. In brief comments at a news conference Tuesday morning, he and Esmeralda Chavez-Anderson, a family nurse practitioner for Astria Health, spoke on behalf of medical care providers everywhere as they pleaded for people to follow guidelines to slow the spread of COVID-19.

“Just because we have extra room does not mean we have extra staff,” Chavez-Anderson said in the small gathering hosted by the Yakima Health District at State Fair Park. “Our staff is working hard. ... They all come into contact with patients who could potentially give them COVID.

“They’re tired and they’re asking for your help,” she added. “We ask that you stay home if you do not need to leave, you wear your mask, you wash your hands.”

The county has seen a significant rise in COVID-19 hospitalizations since Thanksgiving, which medical experts expected. As of Tuesday, 48 people were hospitalized in Yakima County, with eight intubated, according to health district data.

On Tuesday, Virginia Mason Memorial alone had 37 COVID-19-positive patients, Brueggemann said.

“This is the highest number we’ve seen since early July,” he said. Considering the upcoming holidays, current projections say COVID-19 hospitalizations will increase through January and probably peak in early February. Though Virginia {span}Mason Memorial was receiving its first doses of the vaccine while the news conference was happening,{/span} it won’t be widely available until spring, he said.

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It’s been nine months since the pandemic began, and health care workers have been working nonstop taking care of COVID-19 patients, he said. Just like the community, they’re suffering from pandemic fatigue and stress — and are contracting it as well, despite taking many precautions.

“This past week, each day we’ve had at least 70 employees out with COVID-related problems,” Brueggemann said. “On Dec. 11, we had 24 who ... tested positive, confirmed for COVID. It’s taking its toll on the staff.

“There’s a shortage of qualified staff nationwide and we’re not immune to that,” he said.

Patients with COVID-19 stay in the hospital longer, Brueggemann said, which further strains staff. There has also been an increase in emergency room visits, possibly because some people have stopped seeing primary care providers due to concerns about the virus. If someone’s condition worsens. it may require a visit to the emergency room.

Chavez-Anderson stressed increased safety measures as she urged people to keep going in for regular checkups and other nonemergency care. She also mentioned drive-thru flu shot clinics and telemedicine options for care.

“Our hope is that we can prevent some of the things that (send) people to the emergency room,” she said.

Reach Tammy Ayer at tayer@yakimaherald.com or on Facebook.