Skagit Valley Hospital Mug

The ambulance entrance Thursday at Skagit Valley Hospital in Mount Vernon.

As the spread of COVID-19 reaches an all-time high in Skagit County, county hospitals are preparing for a likely surge in severe cases.

Representatives from the three hospitals in the county said they’re sticking to the plans and protocols they set at the beginning of the pandemic.

Dr. Connie Davis, Skagit Regional Health’s chief medical officer, said her team is up to the challenge.

First during summer and then again after Labor Day, Davis said staff at Skagit Valley Hospital saw and managed surges in patients.

“We’ve been through this before,” she said.

Since the beginning of November, Skagit County has seen an explosion in new cases, regularly showing double-digit increases in new positive tests daily.

Hospitalizations have been rising too — through Friday 10 this month — but not yet at a rate proportional to the rise in cases.

Members of Davis’ team are monitoring the rise in cases, and are securing supply chains to ensure that more PPE, testing supplies and medicine can be acquired quickly as needed.

A plan is in place that dictates how much additional supplies are needed as the number of COVID-19 patients increases.

Once there is an opportunity to acquire what is needed, Davis said staff jumps on that opportunity.

As of Wednesday, nine COVID-19 patients were in Skagit Valley Hospital, and there were several more possible cases, Davis said.

While that’s far below the hospital’s capacity, she said it’s higher than it has been in recent months.

A team of staff talks twice a day about the inventory of available beds, and will be ready to clear out non-COVID patients if the need arises, Davis said.

“We don’t want to cancel (elective procedures) if we don’t have to, but we’re constantly on it,” she said.

In Sedro-Woolley, staff at PeaceHealth United General Medical Center have been preparing for a surge since the pandemic began.

“Our prep began in March, and we haven’t let off the gas yet,” said Chris Johnston, chief administrative officer.

Staff are required to wear masks at all times, and are screened for fever and other symptoms daily, he said. They are also encouraged to be careful in their personal lives, and to avoid travel.

Since March, the hospital has been rationing and stockpiling PPE and other supplies, and Johnston said he believes the reserves will be sufficient to handle a surge.

Dr. Sudhakar Karlapudi, regional chief medical officer with PeaceHealth, said United General’s membership in a 10-hospital network offers it advantages other hospitals do not have. Representatives from each of the hospitals talk daily, and are able to quickly and easily share supplies.

Island Hospital in Anacortes has likewise been stocking up on PPE and supplies, including the newly-available drug Remdesivir.

“We really are ensuring we’re prepared in case there is a disruption in the supply chain,” said Elisa Cutter, the hospital’s chief operating officer.

The hospital keeps about a month of PPE on hand, so it can outlast issues with acquiring more.

Cutter said her hospital has also purchased four ventilators since the beginning of the pandemic, bringing its total to 10.

She said her team talks about COVID-19 every day, and is constantly working to improve its protocols and procedures. Things such as the way staff move in and out of the building has gone a long way to reduce contacts and avoid possible spread.

Neither United General nor Island had any COVID-19 patients as of Thursday.

While both have a smaller capacity for patients than Skagit Valley Hospital, they have the ability to send patients to other facilities if needed.

Through the Washington Medical Coordination Center, hospitals throughout the state have the ability to hand off patients and avoid being overloaded, Karlapudi said.

“No one hospital in the state should ever be overwhelmed,” he said.

Davis said the only significant risk to the state’s health care system would be an overload of the kind seen elsewhere in the country, where hospitals don’t have enough beds to accommodate the number of patients.

According to reporting from NPR, hospitals in several Western and Midwestern states are being inundated with severe COVID-19 cases, and are reaching capacity.

Nationwide, hospitalizations are spiking. They have increased 39% over the past two weeks, with 67,096 hospitalized on Thursday alone, according to data compiled by the New York Times.

Whether something like this happens in Skagit County is “entirely dependent on the behavior of the community,” Davis said.

The only way to keep this from happening, she said, is for the community to respect the virus, and abide by public health guidelines.

Davis said she knows people are getting tired of wearing masks and avoiding gatherings, but these practices are more important than ever with the current spread of the virus.

“I understand everyone is frustrated, but resilience is going to require a little patience,” she said.

Karlapudi said the basics of personal hygiene, such as proper hand-washing and avoiding touching your face, go a great way to reduce spread.

“This is not a smart virus,” he said. “It depends on weaknesses in our personal habits to spread.”

With the holidays approaching, Karlapudi said families and friends need to look for alternative ways to stay connected. Technology such as Zoom doesn’t replicate the feeling of a family gathering, but to remain safe it’s as close as people should get.

One thing the public can do to assist the hospital system is to get a flu shot.

“COVID-19 and the flu have several similar symptoms, so those with the flu could easily overwhelm limited COVID-19 testing resources, hospital beds and other parts of our medical system,” county Public Health Director Jennifer Johnson said in a news release.

Taking the flu out of the equation will keep hospital beds available in case there is a surge in severe COVID-19 cases.

Davis said she knows there are those who don’t believe the virus is as dangerous as health experts say.

However, she said health care workers have been caring for patients with severe illness since soon after the pandemic started, and she’s seen the impact of people not taking the virus seriously.

“If you want to see how serious this is, come down to the ICU,” Davis said.

— Reporter Brandon Stone: bstone@skagitpublishing.com, 360-416-2112, Twitter: @Brandon_SVH

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