This area’s three local hospitals are gearing up to make sure all of their employees are vaccinated against COVID-19 as the virus case count continues upward.

PeaceHealth was the first hospital system with a presence in Skagit County (PeaceHealth United General) to announce on Aug. 3 that all of its employees must be vaccinated against COVID-19. The other two — Skagit Regional Health and Island Hospital — will also follow now that the governor included all health care workers in a similar pronouncement this week.

They have until Oct. 18 to be fully vaccinated, according to Gov. Jay Inslee’s announcement Monday that affects both private health care workers and all state employees.

PeaceHealth, which has had some employee protests at several locations in recent days, released a statement Wednesday after a demonstration at PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center in Bellingham.

“We believe it is imperative for our caregivers who are medically able to get a COVID-19 vaccine,” the statement reads. “We support the right of individuals to express opinions in an unofficial capacity outside of work. Our priority remains the safety of our caregivers and those we serve.”

Skagit Regional Health in Mount Vernon currently has a staff vaccination rate of a little over 70% overall and 78% among medical staff, Chief Medical Officer Connie Davis said Tuesday.

As for how the staff has reacted to the governor’s new requirement, she said: “There are going to be differences of opinion.”

Island Hospital CEO Charles Hall said Wednesday that the percentage of vaccinated employees at the Anacortes hospital system is over 80%. Its emergency operations committee met and planned to send a memo to staff Wednesday about the process moving forward.

“A person needs to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 basically two weeks before Oct. 18 because that’s when our immunity kicks in,” Hall said of Inslee’s pending deadline.

He acknowledged that Inslee’s mandate is not popular news with all within the 20% of staff not yet vaccinated. Some are concerned that the FDA has not officially approved the vaccine yet, and others “don’t like vaccines, period.”

Moving forward with that group is the challenge, Hall said.

Inslee has said that weekly testing to prove they are COVID-free will not be enough for employees to keep a state or health care-related job without a valid medical or religious exemption.

The new rules, which also affect contractors doing work with the state or medical systems, are believed to be the nation’s strictest so far, according to The Associated Press.

“We are in the process of going through how we want to approach this,” Davis said.

In addition to vaccinations, “we have to make sure people understand that we will be vigilant about PPE” (personal protective equipment) used in facilities and around patients, she said.

Skagit Regional Health is making sure that both masks and eye protection are used by health care workers in patient areas.

Anyone with a COVID patient or providing procedures that are “aerosolizing” will have full respirator protection, even if vaccinated.

The vaccines will not always prevent illness, but because they boost the immune system, they have done a good job preventing hospitalizations and deaths, Davis said.

Skagit Regional has had 16 breakthrough cases among vaccinated staff members so far, which is about 0.6% of the total vaccinated staff, Davis said. All but one case could be traced to outside of the hospital. None required hospitalization.

“That’s really been the power of these vaccines in that they’ve kept the hospitalizations down,” Davis said. “That is matching what the national information is showing.”

Island Hospital, which is smaller, reports only one breakthrough case.

As for patients, Skagit Valley Hospital was up to 13 patients admitted with COVID-19 in the past week.

Island Hospital had four — the highest it’s had in a single week. It also recently had its first COVID-19 death at the facility, though survival is unknown of seriously ill patients who were transferred elsewhere for more advanced care.

Davis said more COVID-19 cases are being seen among people in the 30 to 40 age range and some elderly patients. Island Hospital reports increases in August among children, people ages 35 to 49 and senior citizens.

Davis said virus mutations happen quickly, making it easier to spread.

“The more we allow this virus to mutate, the more we will have to figure out a way around the vaccine,” Davis said. “If people want this pandemic to go away and people want their lives back, then they need to be vaccinated.”

Meanwhile, while the pandemic has been tough on medical staff members with no sure end in sight, she appreciates the community’s support of medical personnel and in taking care of themselves.

“I would ask people to be healthy, eat healthy, exercise, (and) do the right things for their bodies,” Davis said.

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