After officials, from the governor down, failed to make the call, Virginia Mason Memorial hospital’s medical staff took to the parking lot to call for Yakima County to be locked down to slow the spread of coronavirus, which causes the COVID-19 illness.

Carole Peet, the hospital’s CEO, said at a Saturday news conference outside the hospital’s emergency room that everyone in Yakima County needs to stay home for at least the next two weeks to ensure the hospital and other health-care providers have the resources necessary to handle the coronavirus cases that are expected to occur.

“The only tool we have in the tool box is for people to stay home,” Peet said.

Yakima Health District officials echoed the call, recommending everyone stay  home. The number of confirmed and presumed COVID-19 cases in Yakima County climbed to 20 Saturday.

Gov. Jay Inslee renewed his call for the state’s older residents to stay at home and cut off almost all in-person social interactions to protect the most vulnerable portion of the state’s population.

As of Saturday afternoon, there were 20 confirmed and presumptive positive COVID-19 cases in Yakima County, including two health-care workers at Good Samaritan Health Care’s long-term care center, according to the Yakima Health District

Of the cases in Yakima County, one person is hospitalized and the rest are recovering at home, according to the health district.

And that number is going to get worse, Peet and Dr. Marty Brueggemann, the hospital’s chief medical officer, warned. If people continue to go about as they are now, Peet and Brueggemann said the hospital will be overwhelmed by April 8.

“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,” Brueggemann said.

While Memorial has taken steps inside the hospital to avoid transmitting the disease, such as limiting visitors and screening those entering the hospital, Peet and Brueggemann said that will not be enough, especially if people continue to go out and about.

Brueggemann pointed to the traffic passing the hospital as a sign of people flouting guidelines to slow the spread of the disease by limiting social contacts.

“On Friday afternoon, we sought through channels to have Yakima County shut down at the state level, and that did not happen,” Peet said. “So we are here now with a very strong message: We at Virginia Mason can no longer stand in line and wait for the wave of critical patients to come. As Yakima’s only remaining hospital, we must care for and about our community.

“Nobody is coming to save Yakima.”

Virginia Mason Memorial spokeswoman Rebecca Teagarden said Inslee’s office did not respond to the request that was sent through the county's health district. 

Inslee spokesman Mike Faulk said a stay-at-home order has never been taken off the table, and the governor continues to accept input from around the state and from state health officials who are doing their own analysis. No requests have been denied, he said.

He said the governor also has spent weeks stressing the need for surge capacity at hospitals. State officials “are working night and day on a plan for it,” and the Legislature has approved millions in funding.

Yakima had two hospitals until January, when Astria Regional closed as part of a Chapter 11 bankruptcy case. Regional had 214 beds. On Friday, Yakima Health District spokeswoman Lilian Bravo said there were discussions about reopening Regional at the state level, but no decisions have yet been made.

Recommendations

Inslee, in a news conference Friday, said he would not consider a statewide shelter-in-place order at this time, but warned that he would take stricter measures of Washingtonians continued to flout his calls for people to practice social distancing and avoid large gatherings.

He also called for people 65 and older and more susceptible to the disease to shelter in place and avoid direct contact with others. He urged employers of older workers to allow them to keep their jobs during that time.

A 25% reduction in the number of new cases could be enough to save hundreds of lives, Brueggemann said.

The goal, health officials said, is to “flatten the curve” so that additional cases do not tax available medical resources.

Yakima Health District, in a news release Saturday, called on people to maintain strict social distancing by staying home as much as possible, except for food or medicine runs, essential employment and outdoor recreation if it can be done while staying more than 6 feet away from other people, the district said.

“Unfortunately, the number of cases in the community is not an accurate representation of the spread of disease. The number of individuals that have COVID-19 in Yakima County is likely much higher,” Yakima Health District Executive Director Andre Fresco said in the release. “If too many individuals with COVID-19 require intensive medical care, our hospitals will be overwhelmed.

"In this scenario, people who may have otherwise been saved by our health care system may die. It is imperative that all of Yakima County come together immediately as a community to slow the spread of disease.”

Everett Mayor Cassie Franklin issued a shelter-in-place order Friday evening, and is believed to be the first municipal official to do so. The order takes effect at noon Monday. People are directed to stay at home except for necessary errands, walks and caring for friends and relatives. Nonessential business owners are directed to stay home. Grocery stores, pharmacies, gas stations, laundromats, health care facilities, child care and banks may stay open.

Yakima Mayor Patricia Byers did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment.

Yakima County Commissioner Norm Childress said the commissioners are monitoring the situation and will discuss their options Monday. One consideration is whether or not the county has the authority to order people to stay home.

"We were deferring to the governor," Childress said. "We anticipated the governor would make a statement."

He noted that the situation is changing rapidly.

Resources at Memorial

The hospital has 226 beds, with space to boost that to 257, Brueggemann said, and remote facilities could be established if needed.

Of those beds, 11 are dedicated intensive-care unit beds, and that number can be boosted to 14, said Dr. Krithika Ramachandran, a critical care pulmonologist at the hospital.

A more critical situation is the fact that there are 15 ventilators available for patients needing breathing assistance. Some of the machines are older, but she said they can be pressed into service in an emergency.

But, once a COVID-19 patient is on a ventilator, they cannot be removed from the device for 10-14 days, she said.

“It may mean it won’t be available for the next patient who needs it,” Ramachandran said.

Stopgap measures such as using nebulizers or CPAP ventilation machines cannot be used for COVID cases because the devices could spread the virus into the air, she said.

The hospital will accept donations of N-95 respirator masks, hand sanitizer and other medical supplies, said Dr. Tanny Davenport, the hospital’s chief of quality and safety. He said people who want to donate can call the hospital’s main line, 509-575-8000, and ask for the operator.

Almost 1,800 people have tested positive for the disease statewide, according to the state Department of Health, including four in Kittitas County and four in Klickitat County, which reported two new cases Saturday.

Coronavirus Coverage

Because of the health and safety concerns, the Herald-Republic is allowing unlimited access with registration to our stories and resources about the novel coronavirus. However, if you’re able to subscribe, please support our journalism. Click here to start your digital subscription.

Reach Donald W. Meyers at dmeyers@yakimaherald.com or on Twitter: donaldwmeyers, or https://www.facebook.com/donaldwmeyersjournalist.