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Burlington physician Eric Stark wants people to know that health professionals are emotionally invested in what is happening to those in their care during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s been hard for health care workers — and not just because the continual waves of COVID-19 patients have left them tired.

“We are not just sterile scientists,” Stark said during an online interview this week with the Skagit Valley Herald.

Stark’s voice breaks as he talks about someone he’s known for decades who has refused to get vaccinated, convinced that staying away from others would be enough.

That plan didn’t work, and Stark is heartbroken.

He has comforted a tearful colleague who worried a vaccinated patient who survived COVID-19 might lose an unvaccinated spouse who was in intensive care.

Even the good moments can be emotional.

Stark recalls his own tears of joy when a patient unexpectedly asked his advice about vaccination. Stark was able to alleviate any concerns, and the patient chose to be vaccinated.

That kind of exchange happens less often these days.

Stark said fewer people ask questions, unlike early in the pandemic, when information was scarce. Now, people seem to have decided where they stand — on one side or the other.

But Stark says too many are choosing the wrong side, and it’s taking a huge toll.

“A big part of this is it is so absolutely preventable,” he said. “We did not have to be here at all.”

He said it’s depressing to see how many people refuse what have proven to be life-saving vaccinations.

Stark is a primary care physician with PeaceHealth Medical Group clinic in Burlington.

He often sees people before they are so sick they need emergency care.

More frequently, COVID patients are younger — and sicker — than when the pandemic began. And most of them are unvaccinated.

Dr. Sudhakar Karlapudi, chief medical officer for PeaceHealth Northwest network, sees the strain on health care workers.

“When we see something preventable, the grief is real,” he said.

Medical professionals have been working nonstop since the pandemic began in early 2020, and they are sometimes exhausted, Karlapudi said.

“But I’m blown away by the compassion,” he said. “Yes, they’re tired, but … they find the courage and resiliency to come back again.”

Karlapudi said this state’s fifth wave of COVID-19 started in August, and it’s been the biggest yet, even as other parts of the country are seeing a decline.

Why do the waves keep coming even with nearly 75% of the state’s population fully vaccinated?

Karlapudi said it’s a combination of things, including the particularly contagious delta variant of the virus along with a general easing of restrictions and safety precautions.

The Associated Press reported recently that the delta variant appeared in the vast majority of samples analyzed in the U.S.

No state has reached a high enough vaccination rate to escape the outbreaks happening now, Ali Mokdad, a University of Washington professor of health metrics sciences told the AP. And meanwhile, vaccine immunity is waning, which is why boosters have been approved.

“Delta and waning immunity — the combination of these two have set us back,” Mokdad said. “This virus is going to stick with us for a long, long time.”

But as bad as it’s been, Washington has had it better than Alaska or Idaho, where vaccination rates remain much lower.

Those states have had to operate in crisis mode as their hospitals were overwhelmed. Crisis standard of care means having to make tough choices about who gets care because space and resources are limited. It means more people die.

Karlapudi credits the Washington Medical Coordination Center with helping hospitals in the state balance patient loads, finding empty beds when facilities start to fill. The fifth wave has not ended, but it is slowly waning, he said.

As it subsides, attention will turn to the patients who delayed regular care. So far, he says it hasn’t been as bad as what he saw during the third wave, when people were coming in weeks after having strokes or heart attacks.

“Prevention is better than a cure,” Karlapudi said.

As for the current COVID wave, he said it’s taking longer for the infection rates to drop back down than in earlier surges. The best prevention remains what was identified as helpful earlier in the pandemic: distance, masks, hand-washing and ultimately, the vaccine, he said.

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